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Four Common Complaints when Studying for Finals

It’s time for that springtime right of passage for high school students: studying for finals. And with studying for finals comes a long list of student complaints, some legitimate, others less so. Over the course of my high school career, I utilized each of these complaints. Having spent time as an educator, I’ve found some helpful ways of countering unhelpful thoughts and habits with approaches and processes that save time, maximize your study sessions, and make for a more enjoyable two weeks.

Below are the distillations of several Applerouth articles written over the years. For more in-depth analysis of each topic, feel free to wander through the links!

Complaint #1: I don’t feel that studying helps.

Assessment: Possible, and likely.

It could be that you’re falling victim to some flawed thinking about studying. Consider spicing up your study sessions with the following principles.

Cramming is ineffective. Students love the myth that they can make up for a semester’s worth of teaching in a few days’ worth of 6-8 hour study sessions, usually at a coffee shop with a few good friends. Cramming, or studying intensively over a short period of time just before an examination, can be detrimental to exam performance, to say nothing of a student’s overall knowledge of a subject. Rather, students should consider spacing their studying out over a longer period of time. They should spend no more than one or two hours for any given subject, then switch things up. Allowing the brain a break from a particular subject will help it not only reenergize but also process all the information it just reviewed.

Active studying trumps passive studying. When students study actively, they are doing much more than rereading notes. They are rewriting information into “cheat sheets,” creating practice quizzes from previous material, jotting down ideas on flash cards for future review, and drawing pictures or diagrams to cement their knowledge of a topic.

Complaint #2: I’m just bad at this subject.

Assessment: Highly unlikely

At 6 feet, 4 inches and a meager 160 pounds, I would make for a terrible defensive lineman. I can accurately say that I would be bad at football. But when we turn to English, history, math, science, etc., it is incredibly unlikely that you are flat-out bad at a subject. Maybe you learned some unhelpful processes back in middle school; maybe you need to find other ways of memorizing dates or equations, but you can absolutely improve your abilities. The brain is an incredibly flexible organ, and you can find a way not only to excel at a subject, but also enjoy it.

Flip the self-talk script. The way we talk to ourselves influences our confidence about a subject, which in turn impacts our performance. We’re not talking about self-deception, but we do want to see ways in which we’re excelling at a subject. Did you miss a math problem due to a careless error? Instead of saying “I always do this; I always mess up at the very end,” try something like “I did 9 steps perfectly, and all I need to do is figure out how to get the 10th step right to get full credit on this problem.”

Find the “Zone of Proximal Development.” While this might seem an intimidating phrase, basically it means that students should find their level of success with a subject, and then slowly ramp up the intensity until they are performing at (or hopefully above) their teacher’s expectations. If a student finds that graphing cubic functions is challenging, she should go back to quadratic equations, or even the equation of the line, and work her way up to the current topic. This approach helps to identify any gaps in content, as well as increase a student’s self-awareness.

Complaint #3: My teacher doesn’t like me.

Assessment: Possible, but unlikely

Find out what your teacher wants. I can’t speak for students’ relationships with their teachers (does she suspect you for last week’s elaborate prank?), but I can say that each teacher has a different set of expectations with assignments. Some want their students to cut the fluff and give just the facts. Others want them to demonstrate effective writing skills with smooth transitions between topics. Some want students to show all of their work and will award partial credit; others just want to know if you can get to the correct answer. You should have enough data points from previous assignments to know what your teacher will expect from your final exam.

Ask for help. Your teacher may already offer help leading up to a final exam, usually in the morning or after school. If you can show up to those review sessions with questions in mind and concepts that you want to go over, that will take much of the guesswork out of your preparation. You’ll be heading right to the source!

Complaint #4: I never know where to begin.

Assessment: Very possible

See studying as a learning opportunity. Final grade aside, the last two weeks of your class should be a time for stepping back and reflecting on the past semester. What were the overarching themes and concepts that you want to take with you once classes end? Did you finally get Bernoulli’s Principle? Do you have a better sense for the factors leading up to World War I? Do you see the progression and influence of art from the Renaissance to today? Has the relationship between position, speed, and acceleration changed your understanding of motion? Don’t let the stress of a final exam grade rob you of valuable insights that you worked so hard to earn this past year!

Review past tests and quizzes. The best way to get started is to look back at past assessments in order to get a sense for the material typically tested and also to see how well you matched the teacher’s expectations. Your past tests and quizzes (assuming the final exam will cover that material) are also potential study guides. Write out the questions onto flash cards, and you’ll be off to a great start.

Remember the 24-hour rule. If you can review material within 24-hours of having learned it, you’ll be much more likely to remember it in the future. After studying for that U.S. History final, make sure to look back over important dates, terms, and people before you go to bed.


Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 202-558-5644 or info@applerouth.com.


  • Ahaas

    Very interesting! Thanks, Marshall.