A Guide to Surviving Final Exams

By Abigail Goldman | Copy Editor & Staff Writer

8 mins read
white ruled book
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Monday, Dec. 12 marks the start of finals week. For many Drew students, this means high stress levels, 3 a.m. study sessions and the overwhelming ordeal of relearning a semester’s worth of information the day before the exam. However, “The Drew Acorn” is here to help you survive finals week and maintain your sanity. Here are ten tips to ace your final exams:

1.   Create a study schedule

The key to creating an effective study schedule is utilizing the spacing effect, a psychological principle that entails distributing several study sessions over an extended period of time. According to BrainFacts.org, “hundreds of studies demonstrate [that the spacing effect] enhances long-term learning and retention—and is far better than cramming the night before an exam.” For example, in preparation for a calculus exam, you might spend one day on limits, one day on derivatives and another day on integrals. It’s also important to vary the subjects studied each day to avoid boredom.

2.   Create study guides

You can use study guides to consolidate the semester’s material into manageable blocks. To create a study guide, identify the major topics of the semester and then create an outline for each one, listing the most important points. This strategy will help you gauge your understanding of both overarching themes and their specifics. You can also color-code study guides to identify your strengths and weaknesses in the subject that can further guide your review sessions.

3.   Complete review questions

This strategy takes advantage of the testing effect. According to the American Psychological Association, the testing effect is “the finding that taking a test on previously studied material leads to better retention than does restudying that material for an equivalent amount of time.” In other words, you are more likely to remember information by quizzing yourself on it than by simply rereading it. To put the testing effect into practice, you can redo worksheets, solve textbook problems, create flashcards on Quizlet or design your own practice tests.

4.   Prioritize

Maybe you have an A in Spanish, and you feel confident in your understanding of the material. On the other hand, maybe you have a B+ in chemistry, but a good grade on the final will earn you an A-. Therefore, while you shouldn’t neglect studying for Spanish, it would make sense to prioritize chemistry. This principle also applies to individual subjects. Try to devote more time to areas you’re not as strong in while briefly reviewing areas that you’re confident in.

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5.   Go to office hours

If there’s one person who knows what’s on the final, it’s your professor. No, your professor won’t tell you the answers, but going to office hours or a review session will enhance your understanding of the material and help you resolve problem spots. After all, the purpose of office hours is to help you succeed in the class. Plus, it will give you the opportunity to develop a stronger relationship with your professor, which can be a useful connection for your future.

6.   Study in groups

Although group study sessions can sometimes go off topic, it is beneficial to listen to a peer explain a difficult concept, especially if that peer is also learning the material for the first time. Explaining a topic to someone allows you to assess your own understanding of the material. This is particularly important because many exams require you to explain or justify your answers.

7.   Focus

Eliminating distractions is easier said than done, but it is essential for successful study sessions. To maximize your focus, try turning off your phone or keeping it in a drawer. You can also use website blockers to prevent yourself from inadvertently tumbling down an Internet rabbit hole. Finding a quiet study space is also important. The library offers plenty of tranquil places to study, such as the Kean Reading Room and the second-story silent study area. A previous Acorn article also lists some unconventional study spots where you almost certainly won’t be disturbed.

8.   Take breaks

Yes, final exams are important, but that doesn’t mean you should spend every minute of every day studying for them. In between study sessions, try taking walks, reading a book, listening to music or meditating to relieve some stress. You can also use the Pomodoro technique to ensure that you incorporate breaks into your study schedule. This method involves working on a single task for 25 minutes, taking a five-minute break and then taking a longer 15-30-minute break after four repetitions of this cycle.

9.   Sleep

Although 3 a.m. study sessions seem productive, they are actually counterintuitive. In fact, research has shown that “sleep improves memory retention and recall by between 20 and 40 percent.” Sleep also facilitates memory consolidation, the mechanism by which long-term memories form. Finally, sleep deprivation can wreak havoc on academic performance. This is exemplified by a study of MIT students that found that “there was essentially a straight-line relationship between the average amount of sleep a student got and their grades on [assessments].” In other words, getting a good night’s sleep—typically seven to nine hours for college students—will likely enhance final exam scores to a far greater extent than all-nighters will.

10.   Eat healthy foods

Finally, it is important to avoid stress-induced cravings for sweets and comfort foods—or the urge to skip meals altogether—and follow a healthy diet. What we eat has a major effect on brain function. In fact, there is evidence of a link between a healthy diet and improved academic performance. Certain foods that benefit brain health include berries, citrus fruits, nuts, eggs, avocados and fish. Make sure to eat a healthy breakfast on the day of your final exams in order to maximize your performance and avoid fatigue.

Hopefully, these tips will help you survive finals week and emerge with a better understanding of your course material. You can also follow these tips to prepare for tests throughout your time at Drew and beyond.

I wish all Drew students the best of luck on finals!

Abigail Goldman is a first year majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology.

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