So at the end of last semester I wrote a post about how to study two weeks before an exam. While that was a good post, I have some revised notes for those people who found my blog by searching “how to study two weeks before the exam,” or even, “how to study fast for a exam” (hope it wasn’t an English exam…) Having survived my most recent bought of finals, I have a few notes for people who, like me, got really stressed out toward the end of the semester and couldn’t force themselves to study.
Exam burn-out is a weird sensation. It’s like your notes and the problems are a magnet, and the pole that’s facing you is the same pole as your brain, so that whenever you try to look at your notes or do problems, or just study in general, your face turns to look out the window, or up toward the computer screen, or you lean back in your chair – you might even get up and leave the room entirely. You know that feeling? Yeah, you’re burnt out.
First, you need to acknowledge that you’re burnt out. Unless you’re one of those weird people who can force themselves to study at a time like this, you’re not going to get much useful studying done, so the trick is to make what little time you have count. Something that one of my teachers told me this semester that really put this into perspective, is that you will realize more and more as you go further in school that what affects how well you do on the exam isn’t what you do in the 12 or 24 hours before the exam (except sleeping, that’s important), but what you did during the semester. So if you’re one of those people (like me) who understands most everything all semester and then looks back at their notes and has no idea what’s going on, then you’re actually probably ok. Now if you’re not that person, that’s ok too. The point is, you need to review your notes. But let’s not start with that.
One of the things you need to realize about procrastination is that it’s all about stress. Assuming that you really do want to get the work done and do well on the work, the stress of procrastination is probably making you procrastinate more. Now I’m not going throw my opinions about procrastination into the sea of opinions that already exist (yet), but when I put anything off past the time I wanted to do it, I start to feel guilty, and that makes me put if off even longer. The guiltier I feel, the more it feels like a chore to do whatever I have to do – it almost feels like not doing it at all is better than doing it late; that is, if I don’t do it, I won’t have to own up to the fact that it’s late.
So you’ve put off studying for this exam for who knows how long, and now it’s one to two weeks before the exam and you’re understandably stressed. That stress will make you rush through your notes, and chances are you’re going to gloss over everything you read, so do what you need to do in order to throw the stress away. Here’s what I suggest you do (this is, in fact, what I do in this situation). You’re studying for the final. Let’s say that you’ve been doing reasonably well all semester, so you’ve got an 80 average. The final is worth 20% of your final grade, which is why you’re so worried. It sounds like a lot, right? Yes, 20 out of 100 is a lot, but we’re not really talking about 20% here. Let’s say you take the final and you put something down for every question, and you only get 50%. Even with a 50% on the final you’re final average will end up being 74%. That’s not bad. It’s not great, but it’s not bad, and it means you’ve passed the course. In fact, while we’re talking about passing, let’s say you decided you didn’t feel like it on the day of the exam, and you didn’t show up at all. You still end up with a 64% average, and you’ve still passed. Assuming you know that you can get a 50% at least, the lowest grade you’re going to get is 74%, and you can only improve from there. So right now, not having studied at all, you have a solid 74 average, and that’s the worst you can do. Your worst isn’t that bad.
The next thing you should watch out for is that glossed over feeling when you’re looking at your notes and you’re not reading anything, but you’re just sort of glancing and hoping that something will sink in. Guess what: it’s not going to sink in. When that happens, get up and do something else. Don’t study. Take a 30 minute nap (make sure to set your alarm), eat something, get some caffeine, check your e-mails (don’t get lost on YouTube – limit yourself to one or two videos), take all the time you need until you feel like you’re ready to do it again. Then when you feel better, try it again, and focus on actually reading and understanding. Don’t just accept and memorize, make sure you actually understand everything you’re reading and why it’s important. If you’re still glossing over, then go back and cool off again. When you gloss over you’re not studying, you’re just maintaining the same stress level and ensuring that you’ll remain in the same anti-studying state. However, make sure that you don’t spend an hour on one section of your notes. Remember that your teachers have to test each of the topics more or less equally, so that one proof might not be that important… unless you’re pretty sure it’s going to be on the exam.
So you’ve gone over your notes. Hopefully your teacher gave you some kind of review material. If so, and if that review material is short enough that you still have time to do it, do it now. If it’s too long, divide it up somehow – look for the hardest or most representative problems, do every other problem, or something like that. Having reviewed your notes, you should at least have an idea of how to do the problems. If not, use your notes, not the solutions, to figure out how to do them. If all else fails, or when it comes time to check your work, then use the solutions. If you find that you’re just making stupid mistakes and not really learning anything, go take a nap. I find that laying in bed and listening to music for 30 minutes or so gets me rested and focused enough for a little more work. Just make sure to set your alarm!!! And make yourself some tea or coffee if that will help.
You may find yourself working for 10 minutes and resting for 15 minutes, or even 30 minutes. If it’s the night before the exam and that’s all you can force yourself to do, that’s fine – take what you can get. If you have more than a day before the exam, I would call it quits and resume either a few hours later or the next day. Every problem you do, especially the ones you don’t know how to do but figure out, will help you on the exam so just power through it. Once you get to the point where you can only work for 10 minutes before you start to lose concentration, it’s really an uphill battle but you can get through it.
Now it’s time to get some sleep. Quite honestly, whether you believe it or not, the most important thing to do before an exam is sleep. Obviously there is a trade-off between sleeping and studying, but if you’ve at least reviewed your notes, get to sleep early! You can always wake up earlier in the morning and review a little when you’re refreshed, but don’t push it – you want to be 100% awake and ready to go for the exam.