Surviving Finals

by I.A. Isherwood

Are fewer in-class finals being given? I ask because it seems like my students get more anxious every year about the prospect of taking in-class, blue book, examinations. I am remembering less and less of my own undergraduate experiences every year (and mythologizing what I do remember so it is basically a collection of useless and suspect anecdotes), but I do remember taking lots of blue book exams. Though these exams were stressful, I approached them with that reassuring and age-old coping mechanism of fatalism.

When I discuss final exams, I am conscious of the anxiety in the room and try to mitigate it, while at the same time, encouraging students to study hard. It is a fine balance that I don’t always get right. I am asked the same questions every year: what can I do to prepare?; how long should an essay be?; what are you looking for in an answer? On a comprehensive examination these questions are almost impossible to answer. But I do give a few tips.

If you have shown up to class, done most of the reading, and paid attention, then studying should be more about thinking conceptually about the material rather than mastering it. I’m not interested in mastery anyhow – I am interested that you can demonstrate that you learned something and can communicate it with evidence.

How is this done? By answering the question given. Seriously, we don’t come up with questions so that you can answer the question you wanted to be asked. My questions are usually frustratingly open ended – this is intentional – so that you have to think about not only ‘what’ the answer is, but ‘how’ you should answer the question.  Focus on the question and think about how all of the stuff we’ve talked about all semester long applies to it.

Organize your answer and argue something. Have an approach to the question that you can back up with as much specificity as possible. In history, this means key events, decisions made by significant figures, and arguments by historians we have read. I think you will never go wrong demonstrating that you understand the historiography of the subject, just don’t get lost in it.

Think about what you’re writing before you write it down. This means slowing down a bit and forming sentences in your head before writing them down. Why is this important? Because sometimes students have really solid ideas but communicate them so poorly it becomes difficult to see the idea itself. You can write on paper just as articulately as you can for a screen, you just need to think before you write. In fact, learning to write by hand might actually help your concentration.

Finally, engage in a little relaxation while you’re writing. Impossible you say? Try focussing on your breathing – four seconds in, two second hold, four seconds out – trust me. Panic is the enemy of articulation. It bleeds through blue books. Calm thyself down.