The Finals Week Survival Guide to Studying

Every corner of every floor of every library on campus is inhabited by students. The bitter scent of coffee is pungent in the air. Students have entered in unspoken pacts of silence, only broken by lengthy sighs. Christmas may be on the horizon, but holiday cheer is nowhere in sight. Only one thing could be looming on the horizon: finals.

For those students who are experiencing college finals for the first time, the stress and pressure primarily comes from not knowing exactly what to expect by these monstrous exams. For those of us who have experienced college finals more than we’d have liked, we have accepted and embraced the chaotic process of cramming for finals. But, what if there was a way to maximize your studying efficiency? Even as a senior, I have found myself falling prey to the procrastination & cram cycle that plagues many of us during this time of year. Whether it is your first or final time experiencing this hectic season, it is never too late to learn some new techniques that can boost your learning efficiency!

The Do’s

According to extensive psychological research done on the top study techniques by PSPI, the following list of techniques are of high utility and are incredibly effective in remembering material.

1. Practice Testing

Yes, that’s right, those practice tests that are occasionally provided by professors may just be your most valuable asset. Research shows that practice testing, followed by thorough examination of the answers, leads to long term memory of the correct answers. For those classes that do not provide practice tests, look to online textbooks or programs that may include practice tests and quizzes on each chapter. If those are not an option, head over to Quizlet to peruse practice tests created by your peers. Still can’t find anything, make your own practice tests and quiz yourself (that may be the most interactive way to learn the material ever?). In a perfect world, everyone would have ample time to thoroughly review the material before tackling practice tests. I, however, am a realist and know this is not always an option. If you find yourself having to choose between rereading material and testing yourself on real questions, skip the textbook and dig into actual questions.

2. Distributed Practice

Keep returning to key concepts. If you’re short on time, it may be your saving grace to familiarize yourself with overarching topics at various intervals before your exams. Some may think that it is better to spend an entire day on one topic, yet research shows that it is better to interweave your subjects by switching often between class subjects and returning often to key concepts that draw on the main idea.

3. Space Out Your Subjects

This may be less feasible if you are short on time, but research shows that it is monumentally better to study for shorter periods each day leading up to the exam, rather than for long periods of time the day or two before. In short, study a bit each day and don’t procrastinate and cram. This is certainly easier said than done. However, the earlier you begin, the more you can conquer without losing years off your life and developing actual wrinkles. In addition, it is recommended to take multiple breaks between studying sessions to give your brain a chance to absorb the information before you begin the assault of information again.

If you find yourself having to choose between rereading material and testing yourself on real questions, skip the textbook and dig into actual questions.

The Don’ts

Warning: this may offend you if these are your favorite studying techniques. In an ironic twist of fate, research shows that many student’s favorite techniques are often of low utility.

1. Rereading

When matched up against practice testing and distributed practice, rereading often falls far below its expectations. While it may be the easiest way to study (which is probably why it is the most popular option), it often does not lead to long term comprehension or memory of the subject. It only shows small effects in short term recall studies, where short bits of information need to be recalled. Overall, it is a time-consuming process to read through your mountain of notes or even worse, the textbook, and it is not particularly effective when it comes to passing your exams.

2. Highlighting/Underlining

Research suggests that you should put those highlighters and pens down when it comes to emphasizing which material is important to remember. Yet again, it is possibly one of the easiest study techniques and often accompanies the rereading technique. Researchers suggest that this provides a pseudo-interaction with the text, without engaging with the topics and thinking critically about the subject. However, these techniques tend to get a boost when they accompany some of the more popular techniques listed above. As a stand-alone, it is not a great option for long term memory of the subject.

I hope you try incorporating one of these study techniques this final season, whether you’re a first year or a senior, like myself. We could also use as much help as possible during this trying time.

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Cassandra Poulos is a senior majoring in Biology on a Pre-health track. She has conducted research in Diane Slusarski’s lab at the University of Iowa using zebrafish to investigate candidate genes for cataracts. In addition to her research, she is also a biology ambassador giving tours to prospective students. As the Editor-in-chief of Stemosphere, she hopes to bring science into the lives of as many people as possible.