Semester exams shouldn’t mean long, stressful nights spent cramming, but many students have trouble preparing for these important tests. Stress and anxiety is inevitable – some studies even indicate that it can be beneficial in small doses – but it can easily overtake unprepared students and make exams tougher than they already are. Since 1998, we’ve tutored hundreds of students in Northern Virginia and Charlottesville, and that experience has revealed a few of the best strategies that students can use to manage stress and prep for exams.
Pulling an all-nighter isn’t a sign that you’re motivated; it’s a sign that you didn’t plan your time effectively. Semester exams cover cumulative concepts, and it’s extremely difficult to review and digest so much material the day before a test. Cramming late into the night causes fatigue and prevents students from focusing properly during exams. We recommend at least three days of studying before each exam. This allows students to review the basics before focusing on the specific concepts that gave them difficulty earlier in the year. Planning ahead helps students reduce stress, avoid burnout, and study more efficiently.
Students who ask questions put themselves in advantageous positions on semester exams. Teachers often give out study guides and other useful materials, but students can be surprisingly reluctant to ask questions about the test’s format, grading guidelines, and other details. Sometimes they assume the teacher doesn’t want to share that information, and this may be true in some cases, but it’s always worth asking. Teachers will usually offer helpful information that students can use to study more intelligently.
Prioritizing study materials can be difficult, particularly as semester exams approach. Class notes and study guides are obviously helpful, but focusing only on basic information can leave students unprepared to actually apply knowledge in the proper context. Old tests, quizzes, and papers can reveal where a student has struggled and needs to spend more time preparing. They also give great insights into how teachers write their tests and what types of questions to expect. Sometimes teachers even reuse math problems or essay questions from previous quizzes and tests on their semester exams, and students who review past materials are well equipped to answer them correctly.
Many students do a great job of planning ahead and studying, only to underperform on their semester exams. Test anxiety is one of the most frustrating academic challenges because it prevents capable students from achieving the results they deserve. Students can reduce their anxiety by making and taking practice tests based on their study materials. This allows them to assess their own preparation more honestly because they will be interacting with the material in a test-like context. Students can then use their practice test results to identify areas for additional review. Practice tests also help students get comfortable with recalling and applying information in a test-taking environment. It may not be possible (or beneficial) to remove anxiety entirely, but practice tests do help students build confidence leading up to semester exams.
Many students feel like they can’t afford to do anything but study as semester exams approach. Studying for exams should be the top priority around this time of year, but students benefit immensely from occasional breaks to relieve tension and briefly distract them from math, science, and writing. As a general rule, we recommend a five-minute break every hour to stay sharp. Students also shouldn’t skip meals or lock themselves away from the world for too long. Even something simple like a family dinner allows for a bit of socializing and brain fuel that will keep students fresher for longer.
Semester exams are always complicated, but students can manage their stress, build confidence, and prepare for success by employing time management techniques and thoughtful study approaches. Good luck to all of our McLean, Great Falls, and Charlottesville students on their exams!
Georgetown Learning Centers
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