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Zack Carter Ph.D.

Final Exam Stress? Five Ways to Finish Finals Strong

The research even says you shouldn't skip class.

Source: CC0 Public Domain
Before the eggnog and ugly Christmas sweaters, you must get through final exams. Avoiding these common final exam prep blind spots might help your grades.
Source: CC0 Public Domain

It’s beginning to look a lot like final exams.

What? Were you hoping I’d finish that sentence with Christmas? Well, Christmas Day is indeed right around the corner, but you must first successfully pass your final exams before enjoying eggnog, ugly Christmas sweaters, and John Denver’s album Rocky Mountain Christmas (open your musical horizons and check it out).

I’ll make a confession: I’m a professor, but I was a student once myself. Blow your mind?

I think many students forget that their professors once sat where they find themselves this month—that is, with fear and trembling and uncertainty as they near final exams week. We’ve been there. We understand. We (should) empathize. And if your professor suggests otherwise, they may find coal in their stocking on the 25th.

Recently, I was asked by our university paper to provide a bit of advice on how to effectively prepare for final exams. So, I decided to expand on my own in a post for the PT crowd.

Now, I’m a communication professor looking through the lens of social psychology. I teach relationships, the self, and family communication. And I’m fairly unapologetic and bold when I teach about human behavior and anticipating the hazards hiding in our blind spots often harming our relationships and our mind.

So, fair warning: You can bet my tips to a better final exam will include some resolute recommendations for improvement and success that will help move you from your deer-caught-in-the-headlights look safely across the final examination street, avoiding collisions with blind spots that many college students forget to anticipate around this time of year.

Here are a few (in no specific order) proven, and even scholarly supported, ways to effectively prepare for your final exams:

1. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking a Red Bull all-nighter cram session will do it for you. This has been shown to actually have adverse effects—i.e., poor grades. Your brain codes information as you sleep, storing it for future reference. If you don’t sleep, your brain has massive trouble pulling from memory what you’ve learned (Alhola and Palo-Kantola, 2007). So, instead, snowball study. That is, break down your studying into increments (let’s say over the course of one week before exams), and then cover new material each day, while also reviewing content studied the days prior. This will help with memory and recall.

2. No, don’t use your last freebie absences to skip the last week of classes before finals. Attend the final exam review day. Some profs use study guides, others simply tell students what to expect, while others, like yours truly, use games. Though the review games get a little loud and competitive at times—maybe due to constantly changing rules, which my students can attest to—regardless of your prof’s methods, this day will provide you with clear insights, clues, and hints about what to expect on exam day. Strong empirical evidence supports a positive influence on class attendance and student performance (Devadoss and Foltz, 1996).

3. Stir crazy with FOMO? It’s OK, you’re not missing out. Limit (or refrain from altogether) your smartphone and social media usage while studying. Leave your smartphone in your room, and log out (even consider the deactivation) of your social media, so you can effectively digest course material (Alt, 2017).

4. It’s time for a revolution. Leave your smartphone in your room on exam day. Leaving it in your pocket, backpack, or purse while you take the exam may be an actual mental hindrance to your ability to focus. If you can’t do this, you might need to detox from your dependence on technology. We are in a massive mental health and relationship connection crisis, thanks in part to smartphone and social media addiction (Hawi and Samaha, 2016; Kwon, Kim, Cho, Yang and 2013; Blease, 2015; Tandoc, Ferrucci, and Duffy, 2015). Use this time of intentional separation to focus on studying. Maybe you’ll then find your friendships, family, and dating relationships will improve.

5. Find time to relax relationally with others and with yourself. Meet for coffee with a friend (without your textbook). Read (not your textbook). Go see a movie. Christmas shop. People-watch at the mall. Walk. Whatever it is you do, let your sponge-of-a-mind rest.

Once you’re finished with finals, pour yourself a cold glass of eggnog. Put on your sweater featuring a cat wearing a Santa hat. Then, set your Bluetooth soundbar to "Christmas for Cowboys" from John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Christmas album, and rest in the fact that finals are over … until spring semester, at least.


About the Author

Zack Carter, Ph.D., is a professor of communication at Taylor University, where he teaches classes in interpersonal, intrapersonal, and family communication.