Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Getting Control of Exam Studying

This week is four weeks before exams for my students.  A number of them have spoken to me about their feelings of being overwhelmed.  Our calendar changed this year, and 2L and 3L students were bit surprised to realize that exams start earlier than usual. 

I have been working with many students on strategies to get control of exam studying rather than letting it control them.  A Chinese proverb seems appropriate: You can eat an elephant one bite at a time.  Depending on a student's difficulty with a course, we may be talking about a baby elephant, an adult elephant, or a legendary elephant of massive proportion.

Four types of review are needed each week for each course throughout the remainder of the semester: intense review of subtopics, cover to cover outline review, memory drills, and practice questions. 

  • "Intense review" is accomplished through the subtopic lists described in the steps below and prepares students to know the material as if the exam were tomorrow.
  • "Cover to cover outline review" is reading through the entire outline at least once each week for each course.  This type of review keeps everything fresh in memory and will take relatively little additional time each week.  
  • "Memory drills" are for those rules and elements that still need to be learned more precisely.  The additional time needed will depend on the course and the student's adeptness at memorization. 
  • "Practice questions" should be done a day or two after the intense review to see if one really understood the material and can apply it.  Most students need 1-2 hours per course each week for this task.   

Here are the steps that I suggest they use to gain control through the "intense review" process:

Make a list of every topic with all of the subtopics to be studied for the final exam..  Each coure should have its own sheet of paper for this step.  The subtopics are the critical pieces in this scheme.  Number all of the subtopics down the list.  If the student has a syllabus for the whole semester, then the entire list will be numbered.  If a professor gives out the syllabus in pieces, then more topics/subtopics may need to be added later and the numbering continued.

For each subtopic that has already been covered in class, write down an estimate of the amount of time needed to know the material for the exam.  Some subtopics that are already understood may only take 15 more minutes.  Others may need 30 minutes, 45 minutes, 1 hour or more.  If the estimate is a range (1 - 1 1/2 hours), then always choose the higher time.  It is better to have more time than too little time estimated.  Estimates will be added for new subtopics as they are covered in class.

Total the amount of time needed for each course for all of the subtopics so far.  This total gives a student a realistic idea of the intense review time needed for the course up to this point in time.  Courses will vary in the amount of time because of the amount of material covered and the difficulty of that material for a student.  The total will increase as estimates are added for new subtopics covered in class. 

Decide regular hours that can be used for each course for exam study time.  Students who use structured weekly time management schedules will find this step very easy because their routinized study schedule already shows blocks of time that are open.  For students who have not been structured, this is a good time to become more structured so that each week's schedule becomes more routine and predictable.  For this step, a student might decide that she can spend 3-5 every Monday and 2-4 every Saturday on intense Property review, every Tuesday 8 - 10 and every Sunday 3-5 on intense Crim Law review, and every Saturday 9-12 and 7-9 on Con Law intense review.

Use monthly calendars to scheulde subtopics for the regular exam study times for each course.   Now pencil in the subtopic numbers for each course that will be completed during those regular times.  Every Monday 3-5 will have Property subtopic numbers as will every Saturday 2-4 (3/28 P1-4, 3/30 P5-7 etc.).  Frontload the subtopics for the material already covered because new material subtopics will be studied as they are covered.

As a subtopic is completed, visually indicate on the list that the intense review is finished.  Some students like to use highlighters; some students like to draw a line through the subtopic.  The idea is for the student to see her progress as she conquers the list. 

The goal is to have all subtopics except the last 1 or 2 weeks of new material ready for the exam by the last day of classes.  Students will be less stressed about exams, feel more confident about the material, and have less to learn during the exam period this way.  (Amy Jarmon)

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