Academic performance, Exams, Memory

Final exam preparation

With the final exams getting closer by the day, we need to start thinking about final exam preparation. I wrote earlier about how to study throughout the term to enhance memory recall for exams, but now it’s time to shake things up a bit.

If you have been creating comprehensive notes for your subjects, by the end of term, the amount of notes is going to be quite large! This is a good thing. These notes should include summaries of all of the key learning outcomes, including written text, diagrams, flow charts, written summaries of insights gained from practice exam questions. Hopefully you have been regularly revising these notes using those strategies of forced recall and spaced repetition that I outlined in my earlier post. If so, by this stage, you should be pretty familiar with a lot of the content. It is certainly important that you understand most of the content by this stage. But it’s unlikely that you can recall everything in there yet. This is where this next phase comes in.

When you are around 4 weeks out from the final exams, we want to employ a new revision strategy. I recommend that you put aside a time to go through the whole lot of comprehensive notes in one to two sittings. As you go through, used the forced recall strategy to test yourself on whether you remember a topic or not.

Just like in my earlier post, I recommend that you use little flag stickers as you go (something like these) where you start flagging just the content you have any trouble remembering. We will call this content the ‘tough stuff’ and the content that you are pretty confident with the ‘easy stuff’.

The next step is to rewrite your notes as follows: (1) re-write tough stuff in as much detail as needed to have the comprehensive gist of the topic; and (2) re-write the easy stuff in a reduced volume. We don’t want to start ignoring the easy stuff – we want to keep that recall strong, but we don’t need to spend so much time going through it in all of its detail.

As an example from biology (my favourite subject!), one big topic is cell division. The initial notes about this will be quite lengthy, where there are summaries of each phase of cell division and also some pictures of cells undergoing each phase. These comprehensive notes will look something like this (for those interested, the phases of mitosis are interphase, prophase, metaphase, anaphase, telophase). Once you become confident with this content, and are able to condense this within your easy notes, the easy notes will eventually be as simple as: “Cell division = mitosis = IPMAT“. The mnemonic of IPMAT will eventually be all you need to spur on recall of what each letter stands for, and what is happening at each phase (this works when you’ve put in the hard yards of regular revision in the months beforehand!).

We will call this new set ‘condensed notes – v1‘. It will be a mixture of tough stuff with a lot of detail still, and easy stuff which is greatly condensed. Over the next week, try to find two times to read through these new notes and use forced recall as you go, to try and firm up the memory consolidation.

Now when you are 3 weeks out from the final exams, lock in a time to read through ‘condensed notes – v1‘ and start the condensing process again. Use forced recall determine which sections are now ‘tough stuff’ and which are now ‘easy stuff’. Then follow the same process. Write out a whole new version, which includes as much detail as needed for the tough stuff and then greatly reduce the easy stuff. Call this set of notes ‘condensed notes – v2‘. Read through this one at least 2 times this week.

When the exam is 2 weeks away, continue the same process. But this week, try to do the whole process multiple times. As the notes (hopefully) get smaller in volume, you should be able to increase the amount of time for revision using forced recall in the week. The more the better! Remember not to neglect the ‘easy stuff’ – just make it really short and condensed. By the end of this week, you might be up to ‘condensed notes – v6‘ or something close to that. But whatever you get to is awesome work! Pat yourself on the back for all of the hard work so far!

When the exam is 1 week away, I recommend you do two things:

(1) Go back to the original pile of comprehensive notes that you had at the start of this strategy. Lock in some time to read through them all again now, just to really reinforce things and make sure nothing is missing from your condensed notes; and

(2) Read through your condensed notes (whatever version you are up to) using forced recall at least once each day. Keep condensing and making new versions of simpler and smaller notes through the week.

When the exam is 1-2 days away, you just want to focus in on your ‘final condensed notes‘. Often students can get things down into just a few pages at this stage. And it will mostly be in a very condensed format where it won’t make much sense to many people other than you! You might like to read this aloud many times each day, or rewrite the notes out again several times. Or you might like to try to explain to a friend or family member. Another fun thing to do is create mind maps – these can help foster connections between the different course topics. To really assist with your recall, I recommend that you use mnemonics – come up with your own creative or funny ways to remember the content. By the day before the exam, you want to feel that you have done your best. Even if there are a few things in your final condensed notes that you have trouble remembering, take a look back at the giant pile of notes that you started with and recognise how far you have come!

The day before the exam, ensure that you:

(1) Plan your transport for the next day and pack any necessary equipment in your bag

(2) Set a few alarms to be safe!

(3) Read your condensed notes once or twice

(4) Get an excellent night’s sleep (sleep is when a huge amount of memory consolidation occurs)

(5) If you haven’t already, start thinking about what rewards you will give to yourself once the exams are all done and dusted?!

On the day of the exam, have a healthy breakfast (go easy on the caffeine!), go through the final condensed notes just once or twice, and then trust that you got this!

Did you find this helpful?

If that’s a yes, and you have the means, please consider buying me a coffee to say thanks, via my Ko-Fi page.

Top photo by Sumeet B on Unsplash

Bottom photo by Ava Sol on Unsplash

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