No matter the year, the season, or the semester, a lot of students experience the same feeling: after just beginning to get familiar with your classes and starting to figure out the rhythm between studying and spending time with your friends, even though you’re still wrapping your head around some of the stuff from the textbook and lectures, you’re thrust into the pressure of a midterm. Although studying for these tests can be a source of anxiety, there are some important considerations that can help ease a lot of this stress and help you prepare not only to better understand the content of a course but to demonstrate what you know in the way the exam demands.
1. Know your resources – So we all know to review lecture slides, your notes from class, and assigned pages from the textbook, but we often a lot more resources to use when prepping for our midterms. Reviewing and reworking any prior assignments and problem sets can help figure out how to work the course content into a format you might see on the test. Consulting with classmates in study groups can help clear up some of the less accessible stuff from your studying. Office hours, review sessions, and recitations can also give you a chance to ask questions that come up during studying.
Perhaps the most important thing to do, however, is to complete practice exams or old exams when you start studying. Sure, you may not do perfectly on this practice exam (and you shouldn’t expect yourself to on the first try!), but it can help you figure out what kind of questions you can expect to see on the midterm as well as which parts of the lessons to spend more time on and which you may need to work with a little less.
2. Know as much as you can about the exam – It’s incredibly important to know as much as possible about what the exam will look like when studying. For starters, knowing the format of the exam can help you determine how to practice showing what you know. If you’re taking a multiple choice exam, it can be useful to practice rewording concepts to prep yourself for any new ways of phrasing concepts on the exam. But if you’re taking a bluebook essay exam, you might need to practice putting together an outline quickly and writing for extended periods of time.
In addition to knowing the exam format, it’s important to know what kind of mental work the exam will ask of you. Will you just need to do the same formulas from your problem sets with different values, or will you be asked to identify which formula to use in a given situation? Do you need to know the textbook definition of each organ in a system, or will you need to show how they work together in a sequence, including knowing what happens when things go wrong? Using practice exams or consulting with the TA to determine the kind of mental work you’ll need to show can help you get in the mindset the midterm is asking from you.
3. Do what you can with the time that you have – You’ve probably heard the same thing from tutors, classmates, online sources, and pretty much everyone: avoid cramming, and give yourself plenty of time to study. At Weingarten, we definitely agree with these recommendations, but we also recognize that it’s easy to forget about a midterm while you work through all of your other obligations until suddenly you find yourself needing to study 3 days before the exam. Whether you have 2 weeks or 2 days, it’s important to figure out a study schedule in the time you have and to be realistic about you can accomplish in that time. If you have more time to study, you can offer yourself a chance to deeply review all of the content in a way that reflects the format of the exam. If you don’t have much time, it might be best to focus on developing a deep understanding of high priority content, which could be topics identified by your professor as important or certain important ideas that you need to clarify when you first start studying. Regardless of the time you have available or which material you decide to prioritize, it can be useful to write out a schedule for the time you have available, including any other obligations you need to address as you study, and to set clear, achievable goals to accomplish in the time frame that you have.
4. Do what you need to take care of yourself – Whether you have weeks or days to prepare, it’s important to remember to take care of your needs throughout the entire process. This definitely includes a lot of things you might have already heard about: avoiding all-nighters, getting plenty of rest, eating a healthy diet, and getting exercise when you can. Taking care of these needs can make sure you maintain the energy you’ll need as you study and when you sit down for the exam. But this should also include taking care of your mental and emotional health as you study. If you find yourself becoming mentally fatigued or stressed, take a quick break away from studying. If you’re not feeling very confident about your mastery of all of the content, focus on some small and achievable goals first so you have the chance to build from your accomplishments. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by studying, find someone you can talk with, whether they’re a friend, family member, or a professional.
Guest Blogger: James D. Arrington, Learning Fellow