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In a recent Student Health 101 survey, more than 80 percent of students agreed that the end of the semester is more stressful for them than any other time of the year. Students find themselves managing many projects and other assignments. Having the right strategy is the key to a more productive, less stressful finals season.
STEP ONE: Block Out Time
Tabatha S., a third-year online student at Ohlone College in Fremont, California, says that to bounce between multiple projects, she makes a schedule and sticks to it. By planning out her time in advance, she’s able to mentally prepare. “I create a schedule of time blocks to work on individual projects, study, review notes, and so forth,” she says. Sixty-three percent of the respondents to the Student Health 101 survey said they create a very specific calendar or to-do list, and go through it methodically. This can reduce getting overwhelmed, and provide you with a sense of control over your responsibilities.
Having an organized plan for when you’ll study is much more helpful than cramming, says Dr. Doris Bergen, professor of educational psychology and co-director of Miami University’s Center for Human Development, Learning, and Technology. “[Your performance will be] at its peak when you study more often over the course of a period,” says Bergen.
This type of preparation is important, even if it means that you feel a temporary increase in pressure. Karen S., a third-year online student at Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, reminds herself of the purpose of her education. She says, “I keep in mind that I am choosing to take these classes to better my life.”
STEP TWO: Break It Down
MacKenzie Lorenzato, a peer tutor at Peer Connections, a campus-wide tutoring and mentoring program at San Jose State University in California, suggests focusing on your goals for that moment. “Prioritize in a way that is actually functional; if it’s not going to work for your schedule or your personality, then it’s not going to work, period.”
To keep material fresh, “have 10-minute review sessions every day,” she says. “If you review the information most days that week, you will have a better chance of remembering [it] than if you only look at it the days you have class.”
For many students, repetition increases retention. Going over material multiple times, in bite-size pieces, can be more effective than trying to absorb everything all at once. Some find that reviewing information in various settings (such as while waiting in line, on the bus, and in a study space) helps solidify the concepts.
Kevin S., a graduate student at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, uses this method when studying and finds that he can simultaneously help his peers. As he explains, “The primary way I review is through repetition [of my study guide] until I can teach others all of the lessons and examples.”
For papers, Lorenzato encourages students to break down the process. She recommends spending time every day on a piece of the paper. “Set aside the first day to brainstorm, the second day to write a solid thesis, the third day to outline your paper, and the fourth day to write it,” she says, explaining that work is less overwhelming when spread out.
STEP THREE: Make Information Your Own
Retaining information can be difficult around finals, especially when juggling multiple ongoing projects. Bergen suggests finding a way to see how the material relates to your life. “Make it a meaningful framework and you will be able to retain the information in the long run,” she says.
This strategy helps Kevin, who infuses examples of his study material into conversations with people he knows. “I’ll replace the examples [from my course] with real-life situations or real-life people and objects to not only make it more interesting, but more relevant to what is currently going on in my life.”
Lorenzato recommends using the “SQ4R” method: Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Write, Review. This process turns passive reading and studying into an active exercise in which you translate information into concepts you understand and remember.
A Breakdown of SQ4R
Survey: Get an overview of the material. For example, read the title, subheadings, and if it’s a textbook, the questions at the end of the chapter.
Question: As you survey the information, think of the subheadings and objectives as questions. You can rephrase them in your head or on paper if that helps.
Read: Be selective about what you read and create meaningful associations between different sections of the content.
Recite: Put the ideas into your own words. (Doing this with a tutor, classmate, or instructor can confirm that you’re on the mark.)
Write: Make connections or maps of interconnected ideas and trim down the information. Large concepts are much easier to recall than facts alone.
Review: Go over the information in a way that helps you to remember it. Some students use flashcards or cut information into smaller, digestible bits and review them frequently.
“The more students engage in their reading, the better they do,” says Lorenzato. Getting together and discussing material with people from your courses can help in this process.
STEP FOUR: Address Stress
Figure out what aspects of a project make you nervous. If the idea of working in groups stresses you out, Lorenzato recommends making sure “everyone is clear on the expectations” at the beginning, and Bergen suggests defining both group and individual responsibilities. Outlining these early on will help to avoid conflicts, and also help you focus your energy exactly where it’s needed.
Schedule in time for relaxation. This might seem counterintuitive (“I should spend every second studying.”) but stress is sure to build up, and you need to let some of it go.
Lorenzato reminds students not to schedule every hour of every day and to get enough sleep. It can be helpful to designate a specific time for relaxing so that you don’t skip it or take a break that turns into many hours of accidentally lost time.
Amy G., a graduate student at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, tries to make self-care a priority by following her usual healthy habits. “Even though it might seem like I need to spend every waking moment working on the things that are stressing me, I try not to skip exercise. It helps to clear my mind,” she says.
The key to effective studying is to be proactive and focus on what you want and need to learn. The more engaged you are in the process, the more success you’ll have when it comes time to demonstrate your knowledge.
More tips for prepping before finals
- Monitor your own learning. If you’re struggling with something, speak with your instructor or a classmate to get some help.
- Make a plan. Map out your strategy and stick to it.
- Ask for help early. Talk over your study strategy with a peer tutor or mentor.
- Organize your time and assignments using a calendar and other systems that work for you. For ideas about how to do this, CLICK HERE.
- Give yourself extra time. Start studying 2 or 3 weeks before finals.
- Chat about what you’re learning. Translating information into your own words, and sharing it, will help you retain it.
- Find two or three people and form a study group. Even if you don’t share classes, you can help each other stay motivated and on task.
- Use your support system. Your family, friends, or partner can help with stress-management by addressing some of your other responsibilities.
- Schedule some relaxing activities to make your self-care a priority. Go for a walk with a friend, get a massage, or take a brief nap.
- Break projects into manageable steps and tackle one thing at a time.
- Block out the time you’ll need for each task.
- Use repetition: go over material multiple times, in bite-size pieces.
- Translate information into concepts you understand and remember.
- Find ways to practice recalling information, such as talking about it with friends or a study group.
- Make time to de-stress. Though it may seem counterintuitive, taking breaks actually allows you to concentrate more when you return to studying.
Get help or find out more
Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Candice Poulos, SQ4R: Breaking Down the Unmanageable
Dartmouth College, Academic Skills Center, Improving Concentration, Memory, and Motivation California State University-East Bay Online, Study Tips for Online Students
State University of New York, University at Albany, Expert tips to prepare for exams
Chadron State College, Strive Learning Center, Ten Study Methods That Work