Dr. Erik Maginnis
Academic Dean, Latin Teacher
Exams can be a stressful time for students and parents alike. However, I don’t believe they need to be, and I believe that with the right approach, the right plan, and the right implementation the stress can really be turned down and students can find greater success.
I would highlight three common problem areas and three potential shifts in thinking as you look to midterms:
- Reading is NOT studying. I joke that this could be my Academic Dean headstone someday. This is easy to hear and understand, but many students still really struggle moving past this very passive form of preparation. You will read your notes, over and over again, or read through textbook chapters until you can’t read anymore, and think that it means you are ready for the test. Unfortunately, we know from cognitive science that you will not be. Reading might help information to stay in short-term memory which makes you feel like you know the material. But if you've done nothing to actually make sure you remember the material, if you've not pushed past simply hoping to remember, you will struggle, and I am certain you have been frustrated in the past after reading over your materials for hours and not doing as well on a test as you'd hoped. So, what should you do?
- Any time spent reading notes or reading from the textbook must be made more active - have a pen and paper handy and pull out important ideas, key names/dates/places, or any major concepts. Write those on the blank paper, making columns for each bucket of ideas. Then, after reading the notes or text, see if you can correctly identify, explain, and write why those ideas are important, what makes those names and dates key, and how those major concepts are defined and interact. Only by doing this can you push past the passive reading approach.
- In any class where studying notes is crucial, this could also be as simple as reading through the notes and then trying to write them again, from memory. By comparing what you remember and what you don't, you can diagnose the areas of most and least concern going into the exam.
- You should try to think like your teacher. You will know the format and structure of the midterm and will know that the midterm is going to draw from previous tests and quizzes. So, are you able to write a test that you think would be fair? Can you compose and adequately answer questions that tie together all of the material you need to know?
- Move past survival mode. It’s not always easy to be a Georgetown Prep student. You have to take quizzes and tests essentially every day and so you don’t often have the luxury of time to think ahead. You live in what I call “survival mode,” studying the night before and cramming in whatever free moments you have during the day. Don’t get me wrong - for many, this works, and is a necessary (albeit non-ideal) part of your academic lives at Prep. But during exam week, you will have as many as six midterms over four days. This requires a more intentional approach to preparation and a greater focus on learning over remembering. There is simply too much material to be held in short-term memory, and when that short-term memory overflows is when the efficacy of cramming fails. So, what should you do?
- Focus on how you will space out your studying to maximize the return on your investment of time. If you're studying for four hours, it’s likely that only 2 of those hours have been effective. So, by actively planning for smaller chunks of time, you can improve the efficacy of your hard work.
- Think about how you will space out your studying over the exam week period and the time leading up to the exam week period. You won’t be able to maintain singular focus on one subject, and indeed that likely would not be a good thing for you to try to do.
- Finally, you need to think about the details of your studying - what you will study, how you will study it, and when and where you will do all of this studying. This leads to my final problem area:
- Know when your studying is done. Whenever I ask students how they will know when they're done studying, I get a variety of answers - when I think I know it, when I feel confident, or (if you're honest) when I’m too tired to study anymore. Rarely do I get an answer that approaches real mastery - when I know I can answer the questions, when I’ve written out the essay questions, when I’ve proven I can complete the problems. All too often you approach studying without a plan and so have no idea what it means to be done. No test will ever ask you how you feel about the material. No essay can be answered by the outline you've only constructed in your mind. No math problem is solved by thinking you know how to do it. No, any test puts pen to paper and asks you to PROVE what you know. So, how might you do that while studying?
- Assessment has to be part of the plan. You will be prepared for what you prepare for, and you will play the way you practice. So if you are answering questions, solving problems, and writing essays as part of studying to prove that you can do it, then you will likely be able to do it on the test. If you study a topic and just think that you can solve a problem, you do not yet know and may only be holding the idea in short-term memory.
- Consider how you can become more active in your studying. You need to get your hands dirty to ensure that you are strengthening the neural links in your brain required to ensure material sticks. You should start every study session by reviewing what you studied last time to make sure it’s still there. This can’t be done if you don't know what you're going to study, how long it’s going to take, and how you will know for sure that you're finished.
This is a good bit of info, but it is important. You can greatly turn down the stress around midterms if you plan appropriately, if you get some sleep, and if you test yourself regularly. You’ve done all of this before - time to do it again, and knock it out of the park.