Finals: How should you study?


By Paul McCarthy

We have arrived at that time of year that all students dread: finals. Many students feel they are not good test takers. In reality, they more likely are not good studiers. It’s probably too late to change how your student reads textbooks, takes notes or organizes for review (at least for this year), but it’s not too late for them to adopt better study habits with respect to the big test.

Many of us remember repeatedly looking at our notebooks, review sheets and textbooks and continually reviewing the same material. Usually late in the game. We called it cramming. More recently, many teachers have advocated a new process for retaining information called “concept mapping.” Students are asked to diagram the material by writing details, facts and ideas in bubbles and connecting them in an organized fashion. The students are employing logical thinking and are forced to make connections among facts, thus helping them to see how individual ideas form a larger whole.

New research, however, shows that another method beats both of these. The fancy name is “retrieval practice testing.” Taking a practice test and being forced to recall pertinent information and facts actually makes it easier for a student to recall that information on a real test. Why this works is not completely known, but perhaps it is because the struggle involved in recalling something helps reinforce it in their brains. What they recall becomes more recallable in the future, and practicing making a connection will help their brain recognize it next time.

What is the practical application? When your student is studying, they should avoid cramming. They need to alternate subjects and make sure they are spacing out their studying. If they learn it fast, they will lose it fast. When reviewing notes and texts, they should always move from general idea, to main points, to details. They should review things in logical sections. Most importantly, they need to give themselves (or have you give them) frequent quizzes. Try things like having them cover up the details and recite them as they stare at the main idea. At the end of each section, they need to test themselves. When they do well, they can be rewarded with a snack or just a 5-minute break. If they don’t do well, go back and do that section again.

Paul McCarthy owns and operates Chyten Tutors and Test Preparation, an educational services company. He can be reached at To learn more visit


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