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5 Keys to Cumulative Exams

It’s December. As everyone else focuses on holiday preparations and end of year meetings, students only have one thing on their minds: midterms. 

Midterms (or final exams, if you are reading this in May) present a multifaceted challenge. The smartest students, the ones with the highest IQ, don’t always succeed during exam week. No, exams are about much more than raw intellectual ability. In fact, they provide a pristine microcosm for the effectiveness of our Executive Function curriculum. We teach students the four pillars of EF so that they can thrive in school and beyond, but these four pillars should be in the spotlight during exam season. Organization, time management, learning skills, and impression management are the keys to crushing cumulative exams. Let’s examine each one individually:

Key #1: Organization 

Cumulative exams are all about structure – structuring study time, structuring responses to essay questions, structuring an approach to test day. The problem is that most students ignore the organizational component of exam preparation. 

What does your student’s ‘study bunker’ look like right now? 

The average student’s desk is covered in piles of review guides and past exams, two or three open textbooks from different courses, and a half-eaten granola bar that’s at least two days old. This environment does not promote clear thinking. 

A clear desk promotes a clear mind. To crush exams this week, students should remember the one subject at a time principal: only have materials for the class you are currently studying on the desk at any given time. For some students, a basket approach works well — put all the materials for each subject in one basket and put the others away when studying for that subject. For other students, a well-made binder solves this problem. 

Key #2: Time Management

Time management is vital during exams, both in preparation for the test and when the student is in the exam room. We recommend students take some time to plan their studying instead of just diving in. Far too many students like to feel busy during exam prep rather than actually being productive. The solution is to break down each subject’s studying into concise chunks with clear deliverables (e.g. complete the practice exam without looking at notes). 

Another key time management trick during exam prep is to schedule break time. Burnout and over-studying are real, and they disrupt plenty of students during exam week. Students should aim for a ten-minute break for every sixty minutes of studying, but also longer breaks every two to three hours. There are diminishing marginal returns to sitting at a desk pouring over a study guide, usually at the two-hour mark. Students who take breaks can achieve more in less time. They are also fresher when it’s time to perform on exam day. 

Key #3: Learning Skills

Study smarter, not harder. Learning how to learn is one of the key tenets of our EF-driven curriculum. Every student learns differently, yes, but success leaves clues. Students who perform the best during exams have certain commonalities with how they study: a macro to micro approach, realistic self-testing, and interleaved practice. 

Students who perform best on exams focus on understanding the broader concepts before they dive into the details. For instance, students might start studying for their history exam by sketching a broad timeline of events across all the chapters they covered, so that when they study the specific names, dates, and events, they have anchor points to help jog their memory. In biology, students might start with the chapter summary before diving into the vocabulary and cycle charts. Studying in this way is not only more enjoyable, but it also boosts retention tenfold. 

Self-testing is a hallmark of student success. The cardinal rule of exam prep is to make sure you are not surprised on test day. That math concept might seem straightforward when it’s in your notes, but the complexities of applying the material you learned might prove you wrong. Students should design realistic practice tests well before the exam date, this way they can go into the exam with confidence. 

Lastly, students should avoid repeating the same content over and over during their studying. For instance, some students will hit their flashcards in the same order every time. They know the first ten or fifteen really well, but they struggle with the back half of the deck. Or worse, some students develop word recognition rather than true mastery over the material by overusing quizlet and other rote memory devices. Interleaved practice focuses on the hardest content first or provides some randomness to the review order, so students know if they truly mastered the material. 

Key #4: Impression Management 

Students shouldn’t overlook impression management during exam week either. The golden rule of academics is whoever has the gold makes the rules. Students should know that teachers want them to perform well on exams, so it’s not ‘against the rules’ to ask them for help in deciding what material to focus on, what kind of questions to prepare for, and what common mistakes students have made in the past. Attending review sessions and office hours not only shows the teacher that the student cares about succeeding in the class, it also helps students demystify the exam because teachers will give not so subtle hints about what topics will be covered in what way. Go get some facetime!

Key #5 Accountability & Support System

We hope you enjoyed these candid thoughts about exam preparation and the vital role that executive function plays in student success. Our last tip is simple: help your child by providing accountability and a broader support system. 

Whether it’s encouraging office hour appointments, helping to schedule study group sessions, or finding a one-on-one academic coach for this stressful time period, accountability goes a long way to keeping your child confident and sharp during exams. For more ideas like this, please check out our blog. If your child could benefit from one-on-one academic coaching, please reach out today to learn more about our services.

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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