I've tutored dozens of students for thousands of hours over the past seven years, and while each has unique areas of strength and weakness, every student I've worked with has had one thing in common: no one is ever ready for finals week. Today, I'm the founder of an online tutoring company, and as the end of the term nears, we're seeing thousands of students come to our site looking for help preparing for finals. The good news is, anyone can rock -- or at least pass -- a final exam without going crazy. All it just takes a little organization, some preparation, and a solid night of sleep.
Find out what resources are available to you. The advantage of giving yourself more than a night of cramming is that you have time to determine where the gaps are in your knowledge, and then develop a game plan for learning quickly. If you have time, head to your professor's office hours or a TA's study session to ask any specific questions you might have about the topics that will be on the exam. Need more help? Brush-up with a tutor who can walk you through the confusing concepts or advanced problem-solving methods.
Write things down. Put down your iPad and step away from your laptop. Studies show that the simple act of putting pen to paper can actually help you retain information. When I was in college, I would try to write every concept from the course onto its own notecard. Usually, by the time I was done making these, I'd only need to rifle through them once or twice to feel confident I had everything down. But whatever works for you, use it: an index card, post-it notes, a notebook -- just make sure you're spending more time writing than looking or typing.
Group studying can be a time-suck. Students often think that studying with a group will help them understand a semester's worth of work. If one classmate remembers the material from the second week and another mastered the fourth week, coming together can help everyone ace the final, right? In my experience -- both from working with students as a tutor and as a student myself -- studying with a group often results in the realization that everyone is confused by the same material. Discussing how no one understands something is a waste of everyone's time. A better option? Skip group meetings until you feel confident with the material, as teaching it to someone else is a great way to retain it.
If you're in a jam, hammer home the basics. I'm sure this would never be the case for you, but let's pretend you haven't done all the reading, gone to office hours, or put together a study plan in advance. What to do? Start by reviewing all your notes (assuming you took some during class). Look at the syllabus and determine what the main concepts are, and then develop a written (see above) study guide for each. Write, review, write, review and repeat. And then move on to the next topic.
Don't over-study. It's tempting to stay in the library until the wee hours of the morning when you see your friends and classmates doing the same. Studying for long stretches of time is actually less effective than short, varied sessions. Mixing up where you study and the types of studying you do (reviewing notes, reading, talking through concepts with a classmate) is more effective than long, drawn out sessions in the library with no end in sight. So go ahead and meet your friends for dinner -- it's good for your grades.
No more all-nighters. This one's easy. You're better off sleeping and knowing a little less, than "knowing" everything but not being able to remember it. And no, prescription drugs aren't the answer either.
In two years you won't remember what grade you earned on your Physics 240 final. Every final exam is passable. Your smarts got you into college, and using those same smarts to study effectively will get you through finals.