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5 Tips on How to Study for Finals

Thanksgiving break is coming up, and you know what that means — turkey, pecan pie, frontyard football, college football, and…wait for it, final exams looming around the corner. There’s no need to let finals put a damper on your food coma and fall festivities though. If you start studying early and thoughtfully assess your study habits, you’ll find that final exam week doesn’t have to be fraught with stress and sleepless nights. Rather than let finals consume you, you can strategize and meet them head-on.

1. Who? Society vs. Solitude

The words “group work” tend to have a profoundly opposite effect on different types of students, and your gut reaction says a lot about your learning habits. If that reaction was nausea with a dose of dread and a dash of fatigue, you’re a solo-studier and likely an introvert to boot. By en large, you should channel those impulses when studying for final exams. Now is not the time to feel guilty for a night in or for ignoring text messages. You know yourself best and should soak up all the uninterrupted me-time you need in order to bring your A-game on test day. That said, you will need to work in groups throughout your adult life, and that’s not a bad thing; it’s a chance to see ideas from diverse perspectives and spur everyone on a team towards their best efforts. So leave some space for chatting with your friends about the tests ahead. Odds are, they’ll remember a thing or two that slipped past you.

If the last paragraph might as well have been a foreign language and the words “group work” made studying sound not so dreary after all, do what you need to do to get cracking! Form study groups – one for each class if you feel so inspired – make note cards, draw diagrams on a markerboard, quiz each other! You likely learn best by talking through information, and study buddies enable you to do so. Also, teaching information to your peers is one of the best ways to ensure that you’ve mastered it. Keep in mind that it will just be you and the test in a silent room when exams roll around, so it’s smart to also review on our own post study group. Or better yet, sleep on the insights you all brainstormed and review the next day.

2. Where? Lattes & Tunes

Your study environment is fundamental to productivity or lack thereof, and many a student forgets the power of place: they go to a coffee shop out of habit, or curl up in bed because it’s cozy and warm, without considering the quality of work that follows. In her insightful investigation of the introvert-extrovert spectrum, author Susan Cain found that some people focus best in silence, whereas quiet drives others bonkers. Ambiverts, those with a fairly even balance of introverted and extroverted qualities, work best surrounded by coffee shop buzz, as long as it all blurs into muddled background noise. Before indiscriminately settling into a study space, take time to consider past experiences. Despite the fresh aroma of coffee beans and the deep leather armchairs, did you struggle to focus on your last cafe excursion? Did you stick headphones in to block out conversation tidbits or the surround sound music which wasn’t, in fact, what you would have picked? Or were you on a roll, cranking out paragraphs at a pace you never could have maintained at home in the presence of Netflix and the temptation to nap and free snack breaks?

To these thoughts about space, I will just add one more on music, which has fascinating effects on studying. Music with lyrics inhibits your ability to write, but not to do math. Loud, fast-paced music slows reading comprehension, but can have positive motivational benefits prior to studying. Check out this Stanford study on why classical music commands attention and consider making different playlists for each subject this exam season.

3. How? The Power of the Pen

As influential as study companions or a quiet space can be, discovering your optimum study set-up will only go so far towards cultivating peak results. The way you study matters. Many students read back over all their notes from the semester and assume they have been productive, but this method will not yield significant benefits on test day. The notes-review approach is sort of like watching a soccer game as preparation for playing in one yourself. It doesn’t hurt to observe other players and make mental notes, but doing so surely won’t work your muscles, improve your speed, or simulate performance-day stress.

You need to engage with the material, as that is what you will be tasked with on the final exam. Don’t just read over your notes, rewrite them; doing so activates your kinesthetic memory in addition to your visual memory. Better yet, retake all of your quizzes and tests. This is the very best practice for taking a final, and, more often than not, teachers reuse questions on the exam. Whichever route you choose, it’s more beneficial to hand-write, rather than type, your notes. A recent study, which compares students who take notes on laptops to hand note-takers, found that students who wrote in longhand consistently outperformed laptop users on quizzes and other assessments. People who type notes don’t have to be as mindful about what they put down, whereas, when you take notes by hand, you have to process information as you write it.

4. When? Pencil It In

You know how you dread something before it happens but find that it’s not so bad when you’re in the midst of it? Time trials pre track season, or going to the doctor, or apologizing to a friend when you were in the wrong. Final exams are the same way. As soon as you start studying, all the dread fades away. It’s manageable once you’re doing it, especially if you leave time to engage with material in bite-sized chunks, rather than in one fell swoop. So start now. Schedule out multiple blocks of time to study for each final, much like you schedule piano practice or tutoring appointments. You can even jot down which units you’ll study during each session. Mapping everything out, and realizing you have enough time to complete it, does wonders on stress. You don’t have to worry about the calculus stuff that confused you in chapter 8 right now, because you know you’ll devote an hour or two to it on December 4th after school.

Additionally, spacing out study time gives you a chance to step away from material, process it, and then recall it after a few days have passed. The effects of interval study sessions and consequent recall are profound. This experience of sitting down, getting focused, and calling information back to mind is exactly what you’ll need to do on test day, and with the benefit of a thoughtful schedule, you’ll be a pro at that by the time your finals roll around.

5. Why? The Big Picture Behind Big, Bad Finals

One final bit of food for thought: when investing a significant amount of time and energy into something, it helps to remember why you’re doing it. Finals are not intended to be a terrible inconvenience that steals joy from the holiday season. They are a chance to show what you know and ensure that you can confidently say, “I took U.S. history, or chemistry, or statistics, and mastered it. I’m ready for the next challenge.” It’s exciting to learn new things, to become politically savvy, or understand how the human body works. So think of this study season as an opportunity to make sure that you’ve got it, to fill in content gaps and use the tools you’ve gained to think outside the box.

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