Mixed Bag Monday – Finals Time Again

As occurs every so often, it is time for finals yet again.  While one of the advantages of being a graduate student is that I don’t have to take as many classes as I did while I was an undergrad, there are still multiple finals I will need to do this week before I can call the semester complete.  (And before any of you undergraduates start calling foul on me for not having as many classes as you, bear in mind that I also have research, grading papers, and teaching undergraduates to do, on top of studying for my finals.)

As is often the case when finals time (or other busy periods in my educational life) rolls around, I’m not in the most ‘personal finance’ sort of mood.  Instead, I’ll take this opportunity to share some hints about how to do well in the realm of academia.  I have shared tips on doing well on your finals in the past, but it never hurts to hear good advice more than once.  This post is also going to focus more on how to study for more than one test at a time, as most of us do not have the luxury of only studying for one test at a time, particularly when finals roll around.  Some advice to do well on ALL of your finals includes:

1. Get as Early a Start Studying as Possible: I realize that this advice is probably a bit late for you to truly take advantage of it; it would probably be better to hear this sometime closer to the start of the semester rather than near the end. But it’s not impossible to benefit from studying, even if you have days (or even hours) rather than weeks before your test. I have shared some tips on how to prepare for a test at the last minute, and the advice given there still holds. But there’s an old Chinese proverb: ‘The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is today.’ Similarly, while the best time to start studying for your finals is as soon as you have materials to study from, starting as soon as you can comes in second best.

This is most likely a 20 year ago tree

2. Prioritize Your Study Subjects…: Particularly at finals time, you don’t have the luxury of focusing all your attention on a single subject. But there are almost certainly going to be some areas that require more attention than others. Perhaps there’s an area you’ve done poorly on in past tests (and need a better final grade to pull up your overall grade), or a subject that you have trouble on more than others. It might be a simple issue of what subjects have cumulative tests and which do not. Regardless of how you make the decision, you should be able to come up with a ranking of which subjects to focus the most attention. That said…

3. …But Don’t Neglect to Study for Everything: So, you know you need to study more for chemistry than, say, English. That does NOT mean you should skip studying for English entirely. Besides the fact that it is the rare course where you can completely neglect the final and still get a decent grade overall, there’s the fact that studying for multiple tests can actually help you with each one. By spacing out your studying, you can prevent fatigue with the material and give your brain a chance to reinforce what you’ve learned. There are limits to how much you can spread things out, but by not trying to cram six hours of studying into a single six hour period, you can help retain the information (and your sanity) better.

4. Remember to Take a Break Every So Often: In the same vein, you’re not going to be able to study at your most efficient if you study for hours straight with any pauses to allow your brain to rest and recover. This shouldn’t be taken as an excuse to pause for an hour between each hour of studying, of course; there’s a difference between a ‘break’ and slacking off, although I understand how easy it can be for the former to turn into the latter. But some brief exercise, a light snack, or reading for pleasure (if your eyes can handle even more reading, of course) can help your brain to rest, in order to be ready to come back to studying stronger and more prepared than ever.

5. Try to Study With Friends: I know that there are lots of different approaches to studying, and some will work well for you, while others won’t; given that, it’s possible that you do your best studying while part of a large group, while with one or two classmates, or even by yourself. That said, there are advantages to working with your friends while you study. You can get help in areas you have trouble, help teach them when you understand things (thus reinforcing the concepts in your own head), and get new ways of thinking about the material that would not have occurred to you. There’s also something to be said for the advantages of associating studying with people and activities you enjoy, rather than viewing it as a task to be gotten through as swiftly as possible.

Here’s hoping this advice helps all of you who have finals in the next few days. Good luck, and here’s hoping you do well!

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