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Final exam advice from 19 instructors

Submitted by
Jasmyn Solberg

Let's face it, the time leading up to the moment you're writing your final exam can be stressful, and you may even feel pressure while you're writing it. To help lessen the moments of feeling stuck or flustered, we've reached out to some of our instructors for their best piece of advice when it comes to final exams. 


Stephen Brown, Instructor, School of Arts and Sciences:

"Take breaks while studying. Our attention span is a lot shorter than we think it is, and even a 2-minute break for every 15 minutes of studying can help you retain things better." 


Ava Feenstra, Instructor, School of Health Sciences:

"My advice would be to study in chunks of time, in advance of the exam, rather than to cram. When writing the exam, think about each question carefully and stick with your first instinct or answer."


Dr. Jeffrey Wigelsworth, Instructor, School of Arts and Sciences:

"Any history exam will ask students to explain causes and motivations for actions in the past. These exams look for you to present your understanding of the material and not simply repeat lectures or textbook content. When going over your notes from the term, look for themes and connections between ideas and people. You know what the reoccurring themes and topics are in the course. Organize your studying around those themes. And, when in doubt, ask questions. We are passionate about the material and want you to be successful."


Pamela Neumann, Instructor, School of Arts and Sciences:

"Make flashcards! If you are struggling to remember terms or processes, flashcards are a great study tool. Put the term or concept on one side and important details on the other. Once you have mastered a term, put it in a separate pile from the ones you are still working on. As the 'done' pile gets bigger, it will encourage you in your progress."


Kyle Schilitt, Instructor, School of Arts and Sciences:

"Your instructors are all rooting for you to succeed! Don't shy away from asking them for help."


Shireen Bell, Instructor, School of Health Sciences:

"No 'trash talk' to yourself! Do not associate with the negative emotions of a not-so-great past performance as it can continue to defeat you. Be present in the moment with a positive attitude (release good brain chemicals) because you worked hard, and you are up for the challenge and plan on succeeding. When you are done, relax as fiercely as you studied!"


Dr. Kathy Pallister, Instructor, School of Arts and Sciences:

"Preparing for exams in a study group is a beneficial strategy, as you can pool the knowledge of your group members to ensure you understand all of the course content. It's also helpful to study by defining and explaining course concepts out lout to other students, as that demonstrates if you understand the course material fully."


Dr. Marc Jerry, Instructor, Donald School of Business:

"Exam time can be overwhelming - group projects, papers, exams, assignments - they can all add up to a seemingly impossible list. My advice: take them one assignment, project, exam question at a time - you will get this!"


Patrick Conner, Instructor, School of Arts and Sciences:

"Good exam preparation begins with rejecting the idea that preparation takes place only during the weeks leading up to the test. I believe test preparation is a full-term endeavour that begins on the very first day of class. If you commit to reviewing notes in between every lesson, completing all of the assigned work (even when it is not for marks), and most importantly, taking some time every single day to reflect on what you have learned, you may find exam preparation is as simple as looking at the learning outcomes and convincing yourself that you've already achieved them."


Michael Chi, Instructor, School of Arts and Sciences:

"The best advice for final exams I have for students would be to prepare as early as possible (preparation should start from the first day of class!). Do not be afraid to ask for help from your classmates, from your tutors, and especially from your instructors; your instructors want you to succeed, but you also need to put in the effort to be successful in your studies."


Peggy Church, Instructor, School of Creative Arts:

"Move as much and as often as you can. Keep your body feeling alive, and it will help you through this stressful time. Take moments within your study sessions to focus on your breath. As your stress level rises, you might be holding your breath. Which is not going to help you retain information being in a hypoxic (lack of oxygen) state. Breathe."


Dr. Roger Davis, Instructor, School of Arts and Sciences:

"If you find yourself stressed out and pressed for time during the exam period, you might consider a practical approach of checking your expectations of performance. Some students may simply want to pass all their courses; some students may wish to raise one or two particular grades; some students may want to ace everything. Recognize practical constraints and plan your time and efforts accordingly to achieve realistic results."


Dustin Quirk, Instructor, Donald School of Business:

"I don't think students set out planning to fail their final exams; rather, they fail to plan for them. Having a study plan in the final weeks of the semester is critical to helping ensure success on those end of term projects, assignments, papers and final exams. A study plan will help you allocate time efficiently so your studying can be more effective. Tackle some small tasks first to help build momentum and a sense of accomplishment. Set study goals specifying how much by when. Having goals and a plan will also help when you get that especially challenging scenario of two final exams scheduled on the same day. Finally, don't forget to schedule breaks, keep active, eat healthy, and get adequate sleep to help you manage through the final weeks, days and hours of your semester."


Jamie Prowse-Turner, Instructor, School of Arts and Sciences:

"My advice is to get a lot of sleep and drink a lot of water! Sleep helps you consolidate the information into memory, making it more likely you will remember it. Water will help you stay hydrated because when you are dehydrated, you are more likely to have a greater level of cortisol, the stress hormone, in your system."


Dr. Larry Steinbrenner, Instructor, School of Arts and Sciences:

"One book that I do recommend which focusses on the topic of successful learning strategies (including studying for exams), Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel. Every college or university student should read that book in their first year."


Megan Bylsma, Instructor, School of Creative Arts:

"While studying:

  • Remember to breathe - deeply
  • Don't forget to hydrate
  • Go for a walk - get moving a little
  • Schedule some sleep - you'll think better 

To remember what you've been studying:

  • Study while chewing gum - it's just science
  • Say it out loud - if you hear it, you'll remember it
  • Make what you are trying to remember into a story - extra remembering points if you tell that story to someone else."


Kate Hickey, Instructor, School of Arts and Sciences:

"Don't underestimate the power of a 'cheat sheet'! For each exam, consider the course learning outcomes, in-class emphasis, lecture slides, and texts. Summarize main ideas, trends, and changes. Include definitions necessary for their communication, relationships to other ideas, and examples. Summarize this all again until you can have it fit a single page. What? You're not allowed one for the exam? Well, here's the "cheat": The biggest value of the cheat sheet is in the preparation. And remember, you are so much more than your grades - be kind to yourself."


Glen Gaston, Instructor, School of Creative Arts:

"I love study cards. Breakdown complex concepts into simple ideas and then write your own study cards (one idea/concept per card), even using pictures if you'd like. When reviewing your cards say your answers out loud, it really helps retain the info. Then, when you feel ready, have a study partner quiz you using your cards to prep for the exam. Kill it!"


Dr. Elena Antoniadis, Instructor, School of Arts and Sciences:

"Eliminate distractions (cell phones, etc.) and 'chunk' your study materials into manageable 'bite-size' bits (5-9 items) on which to focus on for 2 hours. Go for a 15-min walk, replenish with healthy fluids, and re-centre to repeat with new study material."


We hope you feel less stressed with those tips, tricks and advice straight from your instructors. Best of luck writing final exams!


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