25 Aug

Cumulative exam time can be pretty intimidating for students, especially when they have one in every class.

And for teachers, preparing kids for exams can be a bit of a balancing act. Not only do we have limited classroom time, but we also need to determine just exactly how much help we should give students. We must balance the need to help them prepare for this particular test with the goal of teaching them to be able to study independently for exams by the time they graduate.

Because of this, how we prep students for exams will vary drastically depending on their age. When I help 8th graders prepare for their first cumulative exam ever, I do a lot of hand-holding. But with seniors, much more of the responsibility needs to rest on them.


  1. Give them lots of ideas of how they can study based on different learning styles. Talk with them about different ways to study. I had one friend who wrote out a study sheet for herself – and that was it. By the time she physically wrote out everything, she pretty much had it down. I hated writing stuff out, so I would simply review my notes. Others need to quiz each other or use notecards. Talk about lots of different ways to study and encourage your students to figure out what works for them. 
  2. Narrow down the topics. How much you narrow down the topics will depend on the level of the course, but it always helps to give students a more clear view of what’s going to be on their exam. 
  3. Give students a list of topics that could be on the exam. With younger grades, create a list of every topic that they need to study. Older grades can still benefit from a list, even if it’s just a list of all the topics you’ve studied that year. That’s because a list gives them something to check off. Throughout your review time, encourage students to mark their topic list, crossing off things that they already know and highlighting or putting a star by things they know they need to study. 
  4. Have the students work, not you. Don’t just stand in front of the class and frantically try to review everything. Instead, the students should be the ones looking up concepts in their notes and trying to remember how to solve problems. The more actively involved the students are, the more they will be focused and engaged, and the more they will remember. 
  5. Have students complete worksheets. Give students worksheets to complete that review the material that will be on the exam. Consider allowing them to work in groups and/or requiring them to finish for homework whatever they do not complete in class. Then go over them together so the students can have their questions answered. 
  6. Play review games. My rule with review games is that they cannot waste our class time. So I only play games that are quick and keep the focus where it needs to be – on the review questions. Get a list of review games that won’t waste your time here.  I share them in my book Create Your Dream Classroom. 

  7. Have students write quizzes for each other. When students write their own quiz questions, they engage more deeply with the material. So have them write a 5-10 question quiz, then have them exchange with another student and take each other’s quiz. Finally, they are to grade the quiz they wrote and discuss any wrong answers with the student who took their quiz. 
  8. Give students a practice exam. This is a great way to help students diagnose how prepared they are. Typically the last review day we have, I will give a practice exam – a short, ungraded test that has similar questions as what will be on the exam. We then go over it during the second half of class.
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