This post is a repost from last year, “enhanced” with new material.
Final exam week creeps up on all of us (students and teachers alike). Before we know it, all of those projects, presentations, and tests are due and we head into a frenzy of work to round out the semester. We’ll all get through it, though it may not seem that way at the time. In this entry, I present a few sensible tips to help you survive finals with body and mind (and hopefully grades) intact.
Take care of your physical self – don’t neglect the life of the body for the life of the mind. Though it’s tempting to survive the week on Cheetos, Red Bull, and M&Ms, while studying or working in your dorm room or apartment every minute that you don’t have a class meeting, it’s not a good idea. Research has shown clearly that our minds work best when our bodies are functioning well. So, try to keep a reasonable eating schedule and work on having a healthy diet that feeds your brain and your body. Don’t skip the protein and live on carbs for a week. While you are planning that eating schedule, be sure to put in enough time to sleep. Studies suggest that we actually lose IQ points when we don’t get enough sleep. You need your IQ points for exams! Pulling an all-nighter to study for that exam is less likely to result in a good grade than studying sufficiently over a few days and then getting at least 6-7 hours of sleep before the exam. Finally, don’t forget to get some exercise. Even if you can’t find time to go to the gym or take a run, a brisk walk or a session of yoga can help clear the mind and calm anxiety.
When studying, focus on understanding, not memorization. Memorizing can be a successful strategy – sometimes – but it doesn’t result in real long-term learning and the slightest glitch in the process can cause a brain dump that leaves you staring at the test sheet in horror. How many times have you memorized a list of terms using an acronym only to arrive at the test to find that you remember the acronym, but not what the letters represent. Reread the material and your notes. Think about what the concepts are about and how they relate to other things in your life. Do practice exams or problems and think about why the answers are what they are and how you reached them. Write out your understandings of the concepts/ideas to help reinforce what you know. Do this over the course of several days, not in one night, and you gradually begin to add the material to your own body of knowledge, rather than just placing a series of memorized factoids in your short term memory, where they will disappear right after the exam. A final study strategy is to talk to others about the material. There is little as helpful to learning as teaching. As you teach someone else how to calculate the first derivative, you will really “get it” yourself.
Give yourself a break before the exam/presentation. Don’t study right up until the instant the test starts (or practice until seconds before the speech or presentation). This will only create additional stress and you’ll remember words or ideas you crammed in those last moments, but they won’t be well associated with your other knowledge and may actually get in the way. Instead, stop preparing an hour or so before the test/presentation and take some down time. Go for a walk, have a cup of tea, play with your dog. Do something that clears your mind and puts you in a relaxed state to begin the work.
Stay in the moment. Before an exam, don’t start worrying in advance about how you will do on it. Focus on learning the material in each moment and when you are taking a break, really take a break and let it go. Worrying beforehand will not help you in your studying. Similarly, while you are taking the test, don’t focus on the grade you will get on the exam or your final course grade (or how happy or mad your parents will be or how it will affect your GPA). Read the questions carefully and think about the material and providing the best answer you can in that moment. Once the test is over, let it go. Don’t head for the hallway and immediately start parsing your performance with your peers, or berate yourself for not doing as well as you could have, or check the answers and try to calculate your score. Just go ahead to the next thing on your schedule and do that with full focus (whether it’s a game of frisbee or studying for another exam).
By following these tips, you’ll help yourself academically, mentally, and physically during exam week. Good luck and good health!