Finals: Conducting Effective Review Sessions

By Darrell Fontane

"Professor Marlin's Rule: If you have an open book test, you will forget your book. If you have a take home test, you will forget where you live."
- Anonymous

Helping students to identify the most important concepts of the course as well as allowing them to demonstrate their mastery of the material, final exams have the potential for being one of the most important teaching tools in the arsenal. This teaching potential can be enhanced if the review session is carefully designed.

In the past, I have prepared students with a review session conducted on the last day of class, typically listing the topics and material to be covered and asking them if they had any questions. Experience has taught me, however, that few questions get asked in this type of last-day review session, and that not much of the material presented in the last few lectures is absorbed or learned anyway.

I’m the type that wants to cover all the material outlined in my syllabus and hate to lose lecture days at the end of the semester but—I have to admit—a couple of extra review days at the end seems to help the students out and just works better.

On the first day, I list the topics and material to be covered and give students access to my previous exams; on the second, they are better prepared for a review. Having had a chance to study the previous questions, they come with a lot of their own. Overall, this seems to be a much better teaching strategy.

In a Web search for sites about final exam review sessions, I found an excerpt from the book, Science Teaching Reconsidered, published by the National Academies Press in 1997, that discussed review sessions. Based upon those references, and my own personal, experience I offer the following suggestions:

  • Use two lecture periods—or portions of—for the review session. On the first day, answer any procedural questions. Discuss the topics that will be covered and the number and types of questions you plan to ask. If a page or two of summary notes and equations are allowed, provide suggestions for what should be included. Clarify the weighting of the final exam in the overall course grade. Distribute sample questions and old exams. Finally, ask the students to review these and be prepared to ask questions at the next class meeting.
  • On the second day, quickly clarify any remaining procedural questions and then focus on answering questions from your samples and old exams. Describe the thought processes involved in finding the solutions. Demonstrate the strategies you want them to use and the formats that will receive full or partial credit. Describe the types of solutions you expect for each type of problem: calculation, short answer, multiple-choice. Give examples of "good answers." For example, you might describe your thought process in selecting the answer to a multiple-choice question.
  • Recommend a "game plan" for studying. If the final is comprehensive, suggest ways they can organize their studying. For example, help them understand the interrelationships of the topics in the course. Encourage them to study in groups, to study chunks of material and not to attempt studying the entire course in one night. Give examples of how to create sample test questions and share them within their study group.
  • Suggest effective ways for taking exams. Numerous Web sites discuss this topic. My favorite is Tips on Test Taking, by Richard Felder and James Stice. Provide this link to your students and encourage them to review it. Finally, encourage your students to get enough rest prior to the exam.

A good review will help your students do their best in demonstrating their individual knowledge of the material and, while it may not make grading or the assigning of course grades any easier, at least you will know that you have done your best to help your students succeed.


Committee on Undergraduate Science Education, National Research Council. (March, 1997). Science teaching revisited. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Retrieved May 5, 2008, from

Felder, R., Stice, J. (n.d.). Tips on test taking. Retrieved May 5, 2008, from