If you’re a student, you know that the coming of spring is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the sun is coming out of hiding (if only a little bit at a time), the temperature is higher, and the days are longer; it becomes more and more difficult to focus on schoolwork when the spring air is calling you outside. But then, on the other hand, you have the most dreaded of exams: the final exams. Everything you’ve learned over the past year/semester/quarter is all coming back to you—and you’re expected to regurgitate all of that knowledge back on paper. No, thanks?
Unfortunately, we students don’t have a choice about participation this season. But fear not! If you’re properly prepared, both by studying and by taking care of yourself, you will be able to tackle the week with relatively little stress. It’s a commonly held belief that during the week of finals students hole up in the library, pulling all-nighters and studying for hours on end, subsisting on Cheetos and Snack Packs. Well, actually, it turns out that if you want to test like the champion you are, you really might want to start doing almost the opposite of that. We at eNotes have done a little surveying of high school/college students and had a look at what some experts had to say, and we’ve compiled a list of some strategies to make finals week a little more bearable.
Verify the Details
This tip is important even before you start studying. Make sure you ask your teacher(s) at least a couple weeks in advance about what sort of test you should be preparing for; the knowledge you focus on for a multiple choice exam is different than what you should be prepared to answer in essay/short-answer format. In the former, prepare more factually-based study notes, (flashcards are great), to ensure that you have quick recall for the types of questions you’re likely to see. In the case of essay questions, make an effort to understand foundational concepts and be able to explain them.
Also important (but overlooked with surprising regularity) is verifying the time and location of your test. Though maybe not as expected in high school, college exams often take place in a different room and/or at a different time than your normally scheduled class. This seemingly randomized scheduling is also common in AP testing, so double-check with your teachers to avoid a stressful snafu.
Experiment with Study Strategies
A lot of people, students and professionals alike, often stick with the so-called “tried and true” approach to work and studying—that is, the idea that if you spend enough time trying to pound the material into your head, eventually it will stick. This is a common misconception. Unfortunately (or actually maybe fortunately, as that method is nothing short of exhausting), trying to jam-pack information into your head is not the most effective way to get your brain to retain information.
According to research, the human brain is not designed to focus narrowly on a single concept for long stretches of time; really any more than an hour is pushing it. It is recommended for individuals to designate an hour to spend on a specific subject, and follow this intensive period with a break from the material at hand. Using this on-and-off method, your ability to retain information will not only increase, but the repetition of class materials will help the studies “set” in your mind.
Note: these breaks are most effective when they involve getting up and moving around, at least a little bit.
Get Some Exercise
Many students see finals week as an opportunity to forego regular exercise on the grounds that they simply don’t have time. In reality, that point is only halfway valid (sorry to say). Maybe you don’t have the time to devote to a regular gym session or soccer practice (or whatever it is you do to get the blood flowing), but there are a whole bunch of ways that you can incorporate some movement on the fly. For starters, there’s always the option of going on a brisk little walk. After all, it’s springtime now, and who doesn’t like basking in some sunshine?
If the weather is still crummy and/or you have allergies and/or you don’t like the light of day, there are lots of online pages devoted to “office exercises” or workouts that one can do at a desk. They aren’t intensive, but when you find yourself in a slump, a quick fix can often be as simple as getting a little more blood flow up to the cranium. The Washington Post put together twelve “office workouts” (with positively hilarious animations) to guide you through the motions.
As with the aforementioned lack of exercise, testing season often has a way of encouraging students to break out the snack food and pizza. Don’t get me wrong, snack foods and pizza are great, but only in that ol’ moderation we all hear too much about. It seems that these foods, particularly the processed ones, are full of cheap carbs that the body digests quickly, resulting in a short-lived burst of energy followed by the desperate need for a nap. The last thing you need when you’re trying to learn something is to have your body imagining a nice, cozy bed or even the floor of the library—people sleep there, too.
Eating healthy food is always a good idea, but it really is particularly beneficial when it comes time to use your brain. Instead of packaged snacks, plan ahead and bring fresh vegetables, fruits, some nuts, and really anything else with nutrients that take longer for the body to break down. Typically, the more nutritionally dense foods take longer to go through your system, meaning you’re less likely to be distracted by hunger five minutes after eating.
*Also crucial: eat a hearty and healthy meal before you walk into the exam for the same reason; no matter how well you know the material, you won’t be able to focus when your stomach isn’t in the game.
Get Some Sleep
“Go to bed on time!” That is yet another piece of advice all students have heard a million times and brushed off with a laugh: “Who has time for that?” As a student myself, I know how easy it is to say that you’ll “catch up on sleep later” or “three hours will be fine,” when you have a big project due—but the truth is, you’re hurting your performance as much as you’re hurting yourself. The pre-exam all-nighter is almost a rite of passage, but how about we make this generation the one to put that tradition to rest?
Short of sleeping through your exam, not getting enough sleep before the big test is one of the worst things you can do. A lack of sleep can wreak havoc on your brain’s ability to not only store new information, but even recall information you thought you’d already been familiar with. That is to say, even if you did all the right things, spaced out your studies, and learned all you needed to know, when exam day comes along and you haven’t had enough sleep, you just might forget everything.
Silence the Social Media
This piece of advice is another one that seems like a no-brainer, but really is a lot more difficult than it sounds. Social media is everywhere, if you hadn’t noticed, and unplugging it is nearly impossible. My father even said that he wasn’t sure how good of a student he would be in this day and age when even our methods of study (AKA the World Wide Web) can serve as an outstanding source of distraction (puppy videos… as far as the eye can see). But the difficulty involved in ignoring these distractions doesn’t detract from how important it is to distance yourself from them.
Studies show us that the brain is incapable of dividing its attention between too many things at once; the maximum number of subjects we can supposedly concentrate on is around seven, but even then, you’re unlikely to retain any of the stimulus you’re getting. For that reason, if on one tab you have a study guide and on another you have puppy videos (and don’t forget some incoming texts, Instagram notifications, tweets, etc.), chances are, your studying will suffer for it. Now, who wants to spend hours studying to get half the benefit? If that doesn’t sound good to you, put the phone down.
Sometimes (sometimes), studying with friends can be a wonderful thing. Having pre-arranged study plans can keep you from procrastinating or taking too long of breaks, and you could feel encouraged by your friends’ study habits and want to follow their example. However, some people are better equipped to work in groups than others. If you’re one of those people who is motivated by the presence of comrades, then by all means, schedule a study session! But, if you’re someone who can’t help but chat with your friends, even with textbooks splayed out before you, you might be better off holing up on your own.
The Occasional Treat
This last piece of advice is semi-contradictory to most of what is outlined above. For the vast majority of your study-week, the prescribed advice will serve best to see you through the stress, but that being said, sometimes you really do just need to give yourself a break. Maybe you need longer than a ten-minute rest. Maybe you need some downtime to chat with friends. Or maybe a long, intensive gym session will do you some good. Every so often, treating yourself is not only to be expected, but it’s also a very good thing. Focusing on business is certainly important, but without reprieve from the demands of studying and grades, you just might start to feel a little hopeless.
So, if after a long period of studying and nibbling on carrots you feel that you need to take yourself out for a coffee and a banana nut muffin—go ahead! Treat yo’self.