When it comes to getting ready for finals, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that learning by osmosis doesn’t work. There is no quick and effortless way to study for finals. The good news is that there are things you can do to hack your study game so that you can ace your final exams.
Obligatory Note on Cramming
You’ve heard it before, but we’ll say it again: STOP CRAMMING.
Cramming is stressful, it’s boring, and it doesn’t work. If you’re really lucky, maybe you see a bump to your score on finals day, but you won’t have really learned the information. Cramming only produces short-term results. By the time class starts up again next semester, you’ll have forgotten half of what you learned.
There are so many better ways to study for finals!
Finals Study Tip #1: Break the Procrastination Cycle
If you’re guilty of cramming, it’s probably because you put off studying and had no choice. It’s time to break that procrastination cycle.
Interestingly, the word “procrastination” comes from two roots: the Latin procrastinare, meaning “to put off until tomorrow,” and the Greek akrasia, meaning “doing something against your better judgment.” In other words, procrastination isn’t just about putting things off—it’s also about doing so even though you KNOW it’s a bad idea.
So why do we procrastinate if we know it’s bad?
Procrastination isn’t just a time management issue. According to several psychological studies, procrastination can be better understood as a coping mechanism. We procrastinate because we want to avoid tasks that bring negative feelings. Sometimes those negative feelings are pretty superficial: cleaning the toilet is inherently yucky. Sometimes those negative feelings go deeper: what if I study really hard for this final exam and still bomb it?
Your brain is hard-wired to value short-term benefits over long-term benefits. Blame evolution. After all, ancient humans had to be more concerned with their immediate needs in order to survive; long-term goals took a back seat to avoiding that tiger or hunting that antelope.
But when you allow your brain to trick you into prioritizing your immediate feelings, you feel guilty and stressed out because you did the bad thing and procrastinated. Then a task you already had bad feelings about becomes worse because now you’ve got those same bad feelings plus a bunch of guilt and stress.
Over time, you’re more and more tempted to procrastinate whenever that same task comes up. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that’s really hard to break.
Recognize your procrastination triggers.
The first step to breaking this cycle is recognizing what’s causing it. When you find yourself tempted to rearrange your bedroom furniture instead of studying for finals, take a moment to examine why. Is it just because studying is boring, or is there perhaps another worry at play? Is it a class you feel insecure about? Is there some degree of test anxiety at play?
Once you recognize the feelings that are triggering your procrastination, you can better defend against them. Self-awareness is key to breaking that procrastination cycle.
Take things one step at a time.
We often offer the advice to break tasks down into easily accomplished chunks, and this bit of advice is similar—but it goes a step further. Once you break the task down, focus only on the next step. Don’t think of the entire study session in front of you. Think about getting your notes together. Don’t think about the whole chapter you need to review. Think about the page you’re reviewing right now.
Not only does this strategy help make tasks less overwhelming, it also helps you build feelings of success. The sense of accomplishment as you finish each individual task will help to balance out any negative feelings.
Make your temptations less convenient.
Of course, procrastination isn’t only about avoiding negative feelings or unpleasant tasks—it’s also about being tempted by more pleasant things. Your phone, perhaps. Or a video game. Maybe a book.
Whatever your Achilles heel is, make your temptations less convenient. When you’re studying for finals, turn your phone off and hide it from yourself. Put your video game controllers in a completely different part of the house from the console. Put your book in the freezer. Create barriers that you have to consciously cross so that you’re less tempted to interrupt your study session.
Reward yourself for a job well done.
Finally, reward yourself for studying for finals. Don’t reward yourself for the grade—reward yourself for the work of studying. Make sure the reward is something that really works for you—perhaps some phone time, or an ice cream cone. Something that your brain will recognize as a reward for a job well done. And lastly, make sure the reward is immediate. Instant gratification will help you trick your brain into associating studying for finals with your reward.
Finals Study Tip #2: Study Actively, Not Passively
Studying isn’t exactly fun, but you can make it more engaging! Not only will this help you to avoid procrastination, but it will also help you to remember material better.
Study with friends.
One way to make studying more engaging is to start a study group. Whether in person or online, a study group can make studying more fun and keep you more accountable. Plus, by teaching each other the material, you can help to reinforce the information by engaging with it in a new way. Ask each other questions and force each other to think about things from different angles. The more ways you approach the information, the more connections you’ll build in your mind, and the better you’ll be at recalling the information later on.
Create a study guide.
Even if your teacher provides you with a guide to help you study for finals, creating your own study guide can help you engage the information so that you build better connections. Gather all of your notes, study guides, and old tests from the semester. Put it all together and reorganize it. Then hand-write your own color-coded Cliff’s notes version of the class. The very act of creating your own study guide is a great way to help you remember the material, plus you’ll have a handy document to review in later study sessions.
Make flashcards or quiz yourself to review the information. Practicing recalling the information will make it easier to remember things on test day. To add a layer of fun, build in rewards or make it a game. If you’ve set up a study group, test each other and compete for points.
Layer concepts and topics.
If you’re studying for your U.S. history final, don’t spend an entire study session reviewing the colonial era. Instead, review the colonial era and the Antebellum era, and draw connections between the two. If you’re studying for your literature final, don’t spend the whole session studying one novel; layer in multiple novels and compare and contrast them. By connecting information across units, you help to create those all-important connections that help you to truly learn the material.
Finals Study Tip #3: Take Breaks
When you study for finals, there’s a two-step process to learning the material. First, the things you study are stored in your working memory, which is sort of the waiting room of your brain. Then the information is processed into your long-term memory. Your working memory has limited capacity—it can only hold onto a small amount of information for a short amount of time. By taking frequent breaks, you give your brain a chance to process that information into long-term memory, making your study sessions much more effective.
Finals Study Tip #4: Sleep!
Sleep is very important for learning. While you sleep, your brain reviews the things you learned that day and files them away properly. Sacrificing sleep for more study time makes your study sessions less effective because your brain can’t properly process everything.
Want More Study Tips?
Check out these posts for more study tips that work: