Prepping for Semester Finals in your Mathematics and Science Classes

First, this is not a whole bunch different from preparing for your end of the year finals, so just reread this in May; it will still work. Also this is not just applicable for high school – everything we say here works for college as well.

As the semester nears its conclusion, and your memory of those intricate power point diagrams you spent so much time learning in week two of the course has long faded, one thing to consider is that any untested material since your last exam will have a disproportionately heavy emphasis on your final. Right now we are working with some advanced biology students at an academically challenging all boys school who have yet to be tested on three chapters of material from the last several weeks. The final for that class is likely to be more about those untested subjects than anything else by probably a five to one margin. Everything from the beginning of the year is theoretically fair game, so you should definitely study it. Just learn the more recent material, really thoroughly, first.

Of the old material, that is, the material that has already been tested, what is most likely to appear on your final? You can get an idea if you review your old tests and quizzes. Often, there is a problem on one of those tests that everybody got wrong, and your teacher will want to see that you went back, studied it and learned it correctly. And don’t forget that your teachers will be more than delighted to help, but will not help you if you don’t ask them for help. DON’T LET OFFICE HOURS BE AN UNDERUTILIZED RESOURCE!

Labs – how important is it to know your labs, in step by step detail, for your final exam? Well, you almost never need to remember individual procedural details from a lab at all. Remember that labs are there to support the lecture and give you an appreciation for the scientific process, so the lab itself does not teach you anything new, relative to the lecture material. So you needn’t worry about a question asking why you heated the crucible to get rid of the water from the heptahydrate salt because you are not likely to see a bunch questions about your lab. There is always the possibility you will see a lab question, but maybe one in ten teachers will ask one.

Remember class notes are always your first source to study from and that your teacher, who spent their weekends writing up lecture notes on what they think is important for you to know, is most certainly going to have that material on your exam. There is however one exception: often a class devotes a fair amount of time showing how an equation is derived. The idea behind this is to show that the ideal gas law, for example, is not just pulled from thin air. But you will almost never be asked to derive an equation! You will only need to know how to apply that equation in a given situation. Don’t spend a lot of time learning how to derive equations; it is just not the most efficient way to study. You will be responsible for knowing how and when to apply the equation.

As we have discussed in previous blogs, the best way to learn math and science is to do lots and lots of problems. In particular, within the body of every textbook chapter you will find pre-worked problems similar to what you will see on your final. Cover the solution, attempt to do the problem, and then compare what you did with how the textbook authors solve the problem. This is hugely educational. At the end of those problems, there are always a bunch of suggested problems in the back of the book that are similar, and the advice here is to do all of those. They are excellent predictors of what will appear on the test, often verbatim. These problems are the chief benefit of your textbook; the text reviewing the lecture concepts should receive your attention only to the extent you missed some point made during lecture, or missed lecture entirely.

But let’s be realistic as well! No matter how much you prepare and how well you know the subject, there is always going to be some fear and nervousness. As those of you taking literally any biology class know by now, this is due to your fight or flight response and results from 40 million years of evolutionary pressure, so you are going to sweat some and there is not much you can do to get around it. Not to make light of this of course because for some people panic is literally debilitating. A great suggestion is yoga, and If there is a class at your school or the local gym, check into it. This will not be a short term fix but figuring out how to cope with pressure as you go forward in school will prove really helpful, and yoga is really a great way to deal.

Finally, let’s look at the often heard theme that you should not study the night before your final exam. Really? Will this lead to a poorer performance? If so, let’s see some evidence to back this up. Clearly you do not want to wait until the night before your advanced physics final before looking at your first integral, but how is studying the night before going to hurt you? Get enough sleep and don’t wait until the last minute to try and learn something new, but don’t assume a four hour marathon session spent doing buffer problems the night before a chemistry exam will make you forget how to do a buffer problem the next day, especially if you are confused about how to do buffer problems.

Good luck everyone and as always, be sure to give us a shout if you have any questions!

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