Final Exam & Paper Guide

So you waited until the last possible minute to start writing — it happens.

Term paper deadlines are fast approaching, and if you haven’t planned out your last work for the semester you might be forcing yourself to write an essay in a day (or worse, overnight.) There are ways to make the most of your limited time, even if the situation feels dire.

Sometimes, the most difficulty in writing comes with starting. The hazard situation can look like this: you sit down at 7 p.m. with the intention of writing all night, and by midnight you’re scrolling deep into Tumblr with a perpetually blank Word document.

The best way to start something, even if you’re feeling writer’s block to an extent, is to write nonstop for 90 minutes, Betsy Sargent, a professor in the Department of English and Film Studies, says.

“Putting in 90 minutes of guided non-stop writing will result in a mess, of course, but at least they’ll have something on the page when they’re done,” Sargent, who teaches on the theory and practice of writing, says. “They should then read through what they’ve written, highlight the passages that have potential, and build on those for creating a draft in a slower, more deliberate way.”

Sargent, who served as co-chair of the University of Alberta Writing Task Force from 2005 to 2007 and then became Director of Writing Initiatives and Acting Director of Writing Studies, recommends two main strategies when it comes to writing.

Peter Elbow’s Loop Writing Process

This process involves reflecting on your subject and the data you’re working with. Then take the ideas, which are likely not yet well-developed enough to write a paper on, and write about them in a way that will get you thinking. This can be done in a couple ways.

1. Dialogues can be written between you explaining the topic to other students, or you talking to an author who has already published on the subject.

2. Narrative thinking can be a way to streamline any information or confusion you have about the subject. Write a little story about your thinking.

Adapted from: Elbow, P. (1998). Writing with power: Techniques for mastering the writing process (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Perl’s Composing Guidelines

Consider these guidelines as an exercise to get ideas flowing, not to create your final work. This method focuses a lot on what you’re feeling and what your gut is telling you to do. When you’re at it, don’t stop while you’re writing, even if you don’t feel that you’re getting anywhere. Take short breaks and think about what this is all about. The idea with the following exercise is to find any ideas that haven’t surfaced yet.

1. Get comfortable and relax so that you can be aware of what you’re thinking and feeling inside.

2. Jot down any distractions going on inside your head that may impede your writing.

3. Now, jot down any thoughts that you know about and want to write about — this can be one thing or a list. It can also be “nothing.” Just write it down.

4. Now that you have a list, think about any ideas you may have left out, in case you’ve overlooked something. Add them to your list.

5. Look over what list or concepts you’ve written down and think about what part you can begin to write about. Even if you’re not sure where it will go, write the word at the top of a new page.

6. Take a deep breath and think about what associations you know about the topic. You can write down these associations however works for you: a list, a freewriting stream and notes to yourself all work.

7. After writing associations down, set aside everything you’ve done. Get a fresh look at the topic, think of it as a whole and ask yourself, “What makes this interesting? What about this topic is important that I haven’t stated yet?” Write down whatever word, phrase or image comes to you as an answer.

8. Think about what made that word, phrase or image and describe the feeling that made it stand out to you. Try to understand what made you feel like you were on the right track.

9. If you’re stuck, try to find the word, phrase or image that is making you feel that way. Write that down.

10. When you start to slow down in your writing, think about what is missing and write it down. Then think about where your ideas are leading and what point you’re trying to make and write that down.

11. When you feel yourself nearing completion, question whether you feel you’re truly done. Focus on your gut reaction and write down whatever comes to mind. If you don’t feel complete, think about what you’re missing and keep writing it down.

After 90 minutes: Once you’ve been writing for 90 minutes straight using either of the listed methods, or your own personal method, stop. You’ll have a mess of words on the page but that’s okay — it was just to get the thoughts flowing.

Read through what you’ve written and highlight passages that have potential. Use those to build a more structured draft.

Adapting these methods to your own personal academic situation will help you make the most of them. When it comes to actually writing papers, each professor will have different expectations in terms of structure and content. Knowing what to expect will help you as you near the final product.

Adapted from: The Focusing Institute, Sondra Perl’s Composing Guidelines.

With files from Richard Catangay-Liew

Final exam studying tips and tricks from the U of A’s Student Success Centre

In Mebbie Bell’s first year of her undergrad, she woke up to a disaster situation on the morning of her anthropology final. A night of cramming led to Bell sleeping in to the exam’s start time. Panicked, she called and explained the situation to her TA, who graciously gave her 15 minutes to get there. Bell, in her pyjamas, made it in time by running across campus to the exam.

Years later, the Director of the Student Success Centre is giving advice to help others in preventing (or in coping with) similar mishaps during finals.

Strategic studying

Concept maps are especially helpful for retaining information because they link information items together in the brain and they have a greater ability to resist stress. Strategic studying also includes a lot of self-testing, which can mean attempting to draw a concept map from memory or simply going over those flashcards. For English, this can mean drawing a flowchart of events in a play.

General cognitive strategies are the same for everyone, but they need to be adapted across different fields and exam types. Something detail-oriented can have ideas mapped out as systems. Learn the parts of a system, whether it be in social sciences or biological sciences, within the context of said system. Compare definitions and understand how they can be Testgrouped and what makes members within a group different.
For problem solving questions, common errors include mixing up numbers or orders of steps. Make sure you read the numbers properly — even writing them out beside the question to make sure you have the decimals right can help your mind stay organized. Know the order of steps you need to apply to the numbers you’re given and even write them down if you need to.

Test anxiety

Test anxiety really exists on a spectrum and everyone deals with it to a certain extent. Prepare for what typically affects you. Come up with something to tell yourself when panic moments happen, like ‘Take one question at a time.’

The most common problem that comes with test anxiety is simply drawing a blank, which can be dealt with by taking a deep breath and interrupting the stress response. Go back, carefully read the question again and mark anything that stands out. Then, write anything you can remember, whether they’re flowcharts or definitions. Come back to the problem later if you need to — if you finish the exam and return, your stress will have gone down a little because at least the majority of the test is done. You’ll be able to think clearer, and hopefully recall something that will help you answer.

Go into the exam with a guessing strategy in case you truly do forget the material. Different professors play different tricks with their multiple choice questions, so just know the nature of a particular courses’ exams.

For severe cases of test anxiety, seeing a learning specialist or a psychologist can help you come up with a coping plan.

Back to Back

Keep stress to a minimum and plan to finish your final review before, not between, back to back exams. If you have two exams on one day, take the time between them to eat and move around a little bit. A walk can help loosen up after sitting at a desk all morning.


You need to strategically choose not to study as well. End your studying day with a de-stressing activity, like watching Netflix or hanging out with friends. Seriously, save the Netflix for the end of the day and save yourself from falling into a six-hour binge. It’s important to have the evenings to unwind instead of cram, which can unsettle your sleep schedule. That time at the end of the day is also very important in processing all of the information you’ve reviewed during the day.

Know the difference between reward and celebration, and save celebration until after the tests are all done. Alcohol and partying can mess up your schedule for the next day, and the next week.

Biggest Mistakes

Cramming: Studying one thing for a long period of time becomes less and less efficient as the evening goes on. Taking a five-minute break every 30 minutes can prevent the words on the page you’re studying from blurring together and will make your studying more efficient.

Lack of sleep: Sleep and exam performance is actually one of the most studied aspects of academic life, Bell said. And the findings across hundreds of studies have been extremely consistent. Changes in routine are interpreted by the brain as a crisis, which reacts immediately by producing stress hormones. Stress hormones impede on the ability to perform higher-order-learning-activates which are required on an exam: synthesis, comprehension, accuracy.

Not knowing enough about final exam: If your professors haven’t been completely clear about what’s on the exam, or even if you have questions, ask. You’ll be able to study more strategically if you know about exam format and content. A little email or chat after class can save you from spending time on concepts that might not be too important on the final.

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