Most students agree that the end of the semester can be a stressful time of year. In addition to dealing with final exams, students find themselves working on group projects and other competing assignments. Having the right strategy is the key to a more successful, less stressful finals season.
Ryan from Durango, Colorado, says the biggest part of bouncing between assignments is being able to make a schedule and stick to it. By planning out his time early on, he’s able to mentally prepare himself. “I tackle one step at a time,” he says. Forty-seven percent of students we surveyed say they create a to-do list, while nearly sixty percent say they mark important deadlines and study sessions on a calendar. Setting aside time and tackling each task step-by-step can reduce biting off more than you can chew 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, distinguished professor of educational psychology emerita at Miami University. “[Your performance will be] at its peak when you study more often over the course of a period,” says Dr. Bergen.
Focus on your goals for that moment, suggests MacKenzie Lorenzato, a former peer tutor at San Jose State University in California. “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,” she says.
To keep material fresh, you can “have 10-minute review sessions every day,” Lorenzato says. “If you review the information 10 minutes a day for most days that week, you will have a better chance of remembering that information 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.
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.
“If I have a general idea of what to write about, but I can’t think of a good introduction, I start from the middle, free-write, and work backward to polish up a final product,” says Re-I, a student in St. Louis, Missouri.
Remembering information can be difficult around finals, especially when juggling multiple projects. Bergen suggests finding a way to see how the material connects to your future goals. “Make it a meaningful framework, and you’ll retain the information in the long run,” she says.
This strategy helped Heather, from Manchester, New Hampshire, in one of her hardest classes: statistics. “I had a teacher who put it into a social science perspective for me and helped me understand why I need this [information] and how I’m going to use it,” she says.
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. “The more students engage in their reading, the better they do,” says Lorenzato.
“SQ4R” is a method for studying. The idea is to translate information into concepts you understand and will remember. Here are the steps:
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 teacher 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 remember than facts alone.
Review: Go over the information in a way that helps you remember it. Some students use flash cards 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.
Figure out what parts 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 laying out both group and individual responsibilities. Listing these early on will help avoid disagreements and also help you focus your energy exactly where it’s needed.
Also, schedule time for relaxation. This might seem counterintuitive (“I should spend every waking moment studying”), but stress builds 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. Setting a specific time for relaxing may help so you don’t skip it or take a break that turns into hours of lost time.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of finals, but it’s not the end of the world,” says Peter, a student in Washington, DC.
The key to effective studying is to take charge 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.
Here are more tips for prepping for tests
- Monitor your own learning. If you’re struggling with something, talk to your teacher or a classmate to get help.
- Go over material many times, in bite-size pieces. This can be more useful than trying to learn everything at once.
- Organize your time and assignments using a calendar and other systems that work for you.
- Give yourself extra time. Start studying two or three weeks before a test.
- Find what works for you. Some students like to spread work over several days or a whole semester, while others need to build on information as soon as they’ve learned it.
- Chat about what you’re learning. Translating information into your own words and sharing it with others will help you remember it.
- Find two or three people and form a study group. You can help each other stay motivated and on task.
- Use your school’s resources. Teachers, peer tutors, librarians, and the counseling center can all support you and help with stress management, too.
Doris Bergen, distinguished professor of educational psychology emerita, Miami University, Florida.
MacKenzie Lorenzato, former peer tutor at Peer Connections, San Jose State University, San Jose, California.
Student Health 101 surveys, October, 2012 and December, 2018.