With Thanksgiving not too far behind us and Christmas quickly approaching, it can be hard to resist singing along to the holiday favorite, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”
High school students on a semester calendar ending in December, however, may beg to differ. For them, the beginning of December brings along with it the looming presence of exam week.
Expected to demonstrate all they have learned over the past semester, for these students, it can be the most stressful time of the year. But it doesn’t have to be. Here are five tips for preparing for exam week that will relieve test anxiety and enable high school students to perform their best on these cumulative assessments.
1. Engage in active recall, rather than rote review
Teachers typically organize their courses into units ordered around key ideas, concepts, and skills. The most important concept will show up again and again in old tests and quizzes. A sure way to narrow down the focus on what is going to show up on the final exam is to pull out old assessments and see what you can remember.
When studying, it is essential to engage in active recall rather than rote review. Active recall involves writing or explaining answers in complete sentences, filling out diagrams, and using flashcards to define key terms—entirely from memory and without the help of notes. It takes significant effort to engage in this type of study, but it leads to the surest results.
Rote review, on the other hand, involves rereading the textbook and notes silently to oneself. This approach to studying tends to produce the illusion that one knows more than one really does. (For more information on this see the book Make It Stick.)
2. Organize study sessions
Studying for exams takes serious time and effort, but students don’t have to walk this journey alone!
Get together in groups of 3-4 and practice explaining the material to one another. Be sure to engage in active recall (see above) rather than simply flipping through past notes together.
It is also important to study with classmates who desire to remain focused for an extended amount of time and study efficiently. The risk of study sessions, after all, is that they will devolve into glorified breaks. But if the right students get together and keep their eyes on the prize, the time together can be very energizing and rewarding.
Ideal places to study in groups range from someone’s house to a local coffee shop to the public library. A personal favorite of mine is the latter. Have someone in the group reserve a study room furnished with a whiteboard and markers. Then grab some coffee and get to work!
3. Schedule meetings with teachers
In the midst of studying, it is easy to forget that teachers are a student’s greatest ally. Most teachers love to be asked questions after class or the weeks leading up to the exam. This intentionality reveals to teachers that their students really care and are seeking to do well in the course.
A common mistake students often make is to never take advantage of this willing ally. Remember, teachers are teaching because they want to help their students understand a body of knowledge or hone an intellectual skill.
Read that again!
Teachers want to help their students! So, students, take advantage of this caring, supportive, and knowledgeable resource. Email your teachers in advance and set up a time to meet. And don’t forget to thank them for their time as you leave!
4. Use study breaks!
With all the studying going on, it is vital to work at a focused, measured pace.
I recommend studying in 40-50 minute increments then taking a 5-10 minute break (then repeat). Be sure to remain focused while studying and minimize distractions. Turn off the WIFI (if possible) and place your cell phone in a different room.
During the 10-minute break, go on a walk outside. Run around the block. Do something that allows your mind to relax and your body to be refreshed.
It is not recommended that you read a book, go on social media, or surf the web during breaks. These activities require mental attentiveness, the very resource you are trying to replenish. Instead, let your mind wander, have a good laugh with a friend, and let your lungs take in some fresh air.
Read more on training your mind to stay focused here.
5. Avoid cramming, and sleep and eat properly
This is probably the most underrated tip of them all. There is an epidemic plaguing high school students today, and it is called cramming. More specifically, it is the cram-test-forget vicious cycle.
The way to prevent this cycle is through regular review throughout the school year and structured study sessions that have clear beginning and endpoints.
The reason why endpoints are important is that sleep is important. Students who study all night for an exam will more than likely not remember all they have studied, and instead, wear down their physical bodies.
It is crucial to get good sleep each night and eat nutritious meals. And don’t forget to eat a good breakfast during exam week. As it is said, breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and current science is only confirming this fact.
I hope these five tips come in handy for high school students as they prepare for exams in the coming weeks. Remember, adopt a growth mindset beacuse the goal of an exam is to do the best one can and focus on growing through the experience.
At the end of the day, high school students are not reducible to their exam results. They are persons made in the image of God, created to reflect his glory, order, and goodness on this earth. They do this best when they steward their minds, bodies, and souls to pursue goodness, truth, and beauty. Exams seen as opportunities to demonstrate what one knows about a given topic are simply one way to do so in this lifelong pursuit.