Dear Dr. Linda,

Jenny, our smart, wonderful 10th grader, is in a state of panic because of her midterms. Last year, she did horribly on them and then she did just as poorly on her Regents and other finals. She did great in elementary school and middle school. She even does well in all her classes in high school, but scored in the 70s on last year’s midterms and finals.

The sad fact is that she studies for them. She has this dream of becoming a doctor and we’re upset because these tests are going to affect where she goes to college. Do you have any strategies that will help her do better?

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Frank and Lynn


Dear Frank and Lynn,

To begin with, stop worrying about college. There’s a college for everyone, and if a college you thought was a perfect match turns out not to be, she can transfer to another college. Also, her long-term goals may change.

Years ago, one of my students was determined to become an engineer. He went to seven different colleges, eventually graduated from Stony Brook and is a successful and happy lawyer today.

It’s good to have long-term goals, but they don’t have to be etched in stone. To get there, you have to achieve many short-term goals and overcome obstacles along the way. And young people, especially, will be exposed to new opportunities they couldn’t have known about that result in their changing those long-term goals.

Here are three important strategies for her to try so she’ll begin to do better at keeping class material in her brain in order to do well on those midterms and finals.

1. When you have to prepare for midterms and finals, you have to begin learning new material the day you first encounter it. Then you need to review it weekly, if not daily. If you memorize material for the test on Friday and never look at it again until the midterm or final, you’ll do poorly. It’s not because you’re “stupid.” It’s because the material left your brain the minute you walked out of class after taking the test on it. Why? Because you never looked at that material again until the big exam. I’ve had many kids tell me that they “don’t have to worry about” material anymore because they already had a test on it. They don’t realize that it’s probably going to appear on their midterm or finals as well, or that, if they stop practicing it, they’re not going to remember it.

So, if you plan your time well, you’ll set up times every week to review what you learned from the first day you were introduced to it. Most students who do poorly on midterms and finals usually just put a day or two aside to go over flashcards or notes before the big exam and often at the last minute. No matter what we’re trying to learn, it takes practice to do well and practice takes time.

2. Be sure you understand the material. Memorizing terms and definitions won’t do it, either. Before trying to memorize the material, talk to someone—your teacher, parents, grandparents, friends, etc.—who do understand or are knowledgeable about the subject. It’s one thing to recognize a word on a multiple-choice test and another to understand what the word means and be able to apply it to new situations.

3. Use as many memory strategies as you can. Visualize the material, create graphic organizers or make up silly acronyms. When learning many new things at once, “chunk” terms into groups of three, four or five. (There’s a reason our telephone numbers are arranged in chunks of 3-3-4 and our ZIP codes are five digits). Once you’ve learned one chunk of facts/terms, etc., move on to another. Once you feel you know and understand that chunk, review the first chunks again. Then, every week, review those chunks of information you created for your weekly tests. Don’t just read them—WRITE them. Recopy and organize your notes and you’ll be amazed at how much more you remember when it comes time to take the midterms.

Here’s to high grades on your exams!

Dr. Linda

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