The Best Way (and Second Best Way) to Study for Finals

The best way to prepare for a comprehensive final is to start out your semester studying the way that I teach in the PASS Program.  If you did that, then by now you should be feeling fairly confident that you have a good understanding of the nursing material, and you don’t feel pressured to pull an all-nighter and attempt to cram every detail of your textbook into your already overloaded brain.  Instead, you can just do a superficial review to refresh yourself on the topics you studied at the beginning of the semester, then use your extra time to do a few NCLEX-type practice questions.

The Second Best Way to Study for Finals

That’s the ideal scenario, anyway!  But you and I both know that the real world doesn’t always match the ideal…especially if you haven’t even taken the PASS Program yet.    So unless you have a time machine that can take you back to the beginning of the semester, you’d probably like to know the second best way to study for your Final exams.  Fortunately, I can help with that, too.  

First, though, let’s do something counterintuitive:  stop studying for a few minutes.  When you’re limited on time, it’s tempting to just keep randomly studying whatever seems most urgent, but it’s much better to take a moment to regroup, focus on your goal, and create your plan of action.  And we can start that process with one simple question.

What’s your Goal for studying?

Most students study as if their goal is to learn every single minuscule detail about every single disease or syndrome ever mentioned in their textbook, by their professor, or in an NCLEX-type practice question.  But it’s more likely that your real goal is to get a good enough exam grade to pass your class.  So you need pick a study method that will match your real goal.

Let’s assume that your goal is simply to pass your class so that you can move on to another nursing class next semester.  How should you change your studying to line up with your goal?

Developing your Study Plan of Action

When you have a deadline, you need to spend your time on tasks that will give you the most “bang for your buck.”  In other words, you should spend your time studying the topics that are most likely to be on the exam.  Start by thinking about what the biggestmost important nursing topics that you’ve covered this semester are.  For example, if you’re in Med-Surg, then Heart Failure might be one of those topics.  For Maternity, you’ll want pre-eclampsia on the list; for Pediatrics, you might think about asthma.  Flipping through a combination of your syllabus and textbook should give you a good reminder of specific topics to consider.

Once you’ve finished your list of the major topics, place them in sequential order based on what you think is most important.  It doesn’t have to be exact, so only spend a few minutes doing this.  You don’t want to waste your time!  To help you make your decisions quickly, consider things like how much time your teacher spent lecturing on each topic, how many pages are devoted to that topic in your textbook, or how many test questions your teacher has asked about it on previous exams.  In general, the more time that’s been spent on the topic during the semester will mean it’s a more important topic.

After you finish your prioritized list, you could even take it to your professor’s office hours if you have enough time and ask her opinion about whether you prioritized correctly and remembered all the major topics.  But PLEASE do not go into her office hours with a random list and ask her “Which of these topics is most important?,” or “What do I need to know?”  The answer will be “Everything is important, and you need to know everything.”  A less than helpful response when you’re trying to study efficiently.

Most professors want you to do well, but they are very busy and need to see you make an attempt at studying before they spend their valuable time helping you.  If you walk in and ask what to study without making an attempt at preparing for yourself first, they’re going to be frustrated!  Can you blame them?  When you do this, it looks like you’re being disrespectful of their time because you’re basically asking them to do your work.  Once they see that you’ve been studying hard and thinking on your own, however, many professors will be so impressed by that little bit of effort that they are more willing to encourage you and help you out.  If you’re lucky, they might even give you a few extra hints as to what to study!

Once you’ve figured out a prioritized list of important topics, you’ve got your study plan.  Start studying at the top of the list, review the basics of that topic, then move on.  Try your best not to get bogged down in the details!  I know it’s difficult because you’re afraid you’ll “miss” something, but the truth is…you WILL miss something!  Whenever you catch yourself getting sucked into studying too much detail, just remind yourself that you’ve got a deadline so you’re studying to get the most bang for your buck.  NOT to learn everything there is to know.  

Keep Your Expectations Realistic

You most likely won’t get an “A+” by using this second-best study method, but don’t get discouraged!  Remind yourself that “A+” isn’t your goal this time…passing your exam is.  It’s a percentages game:  you spend most of your time studying the topics that represent the largest number of questions on your final.  There will be questions on the exam that you won’t know the answer to because you didn’t study those topics or you didn’t have enough time to get into those details before your deadline, but you can’t let that distract you on test day.    Your goal is always to answer enough questions correctly to pass the exam, while still getting a good understanding of the most important topics.

Ok, now get your prioritized list written, and go study!

What do you wish you would have done differently this semester so that you didn’t have to use the Second-Best-Study Method?

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