The End Is Near!

Preparing well for final exams in psychology or any other course

Posted Dec 02, 2016

The fall semester of 2016 will soon be history. All over the United States, students will soon be preparing for their final exams. The time between now and then is crucial for earning the highest grade possible in each class, whether the exam is on psychology, botany, or business.

What follow are some tried and true (and empirically validated) steps any student can take to walk into a final exam with a solid degree of confidence. These steps can’t undo mistakes made earlier in the term, but they can help now, as the 11th hour approaches.

Create a study schedule for the exam period. This means organizing your time—most hours of the coming days—so as to spread out study for however many exams you have, whether that’s 2 or 5. What’s most important is to avoid studying for the first exam, taking it, and then starting to study for the second one, and so on. Instead, study a bit for exam one, take a short break, study for exam two, and so on—then go back to study for exam one again.

Study in a quiet place. Yes, this is self-evident advice, but as Voltaire noted centuries ago, "Commonsense is not so common." If the library is where people go to hang out and talk, don’t study there. If your room is in a noisy, busy area, don’t study there. Find somewhere to study where there are few interruptions and where you won’t run into friends who will want to chat.

Tune out of technology! Wherever you study, shut your laptop so you don’t cruise Facebook or check email. Doing either or both of these common behaviors will prove to be immensely distracting from your studying and only make it harder for you to retain information. And put your phone on vibrate. No texting, no tweeting, and no reading texts and tweets from others. Your friends and any news and gossip will still be there when you finish studying.

Make sure you have done all your reading and any problem sets for all your classes. This suggestion will seem obvious, but if you skipped a chapter in a text or neglected to so a set of problems, what will you if questions regarding either show up on a final? That’s right—you will be lost. So, backtrack and make sure you are caught up in your reading and that you know how to solve whatever problems come your way on a test.

If you take notes while studying for finals, don’t type them on your computer or tablet—write them by hand. I’ve written about this issue before: Research clearly demonstrates that typing is an inferior way to learn information as compared to handwritten notes. With the latter, we are much more likely to put ideas and concepts into our own words, which means that they are much more likely to stay with us.

Assess where you stand in each class. If you have a solid grade in one class, one that your are pleased with, then you may want to spend more study time and energy on the class where you grade is at greater risk.

If you take part in a study group, prepare before you meet with the group. Study groups can be helpful, but often they provide a false sense of security and more of a social occasion than a time to learn. So, study the course material before you meet with the group—you will be able to help the group learn (which is way to help yourself review material) instead of starting from scratch.

Eat well, take an exercise break, socialize a little, and get an appropriate amount of sleep. All of these tips are “no brainers” but they are nonetheless often ignored. Make sure you eat health food and hit the gym if you can. Why not meet a friend for lunch or dinner, making clear that you need to leave to get back to studying by a certain time. Avoid doing “all nighters”—they are counterproductive. Better to study until a certain time in the evening, go to bed and then rise early the next morning to study more. Sleeping in during exam week is not a good idea. Use the time you have to maximize studying and perhaps your semester GPA! 

Finally, don't brood. When a class and its accompanying exam is over—it's over. You cannot change anything about it. If you didn't study enough or perform as well as you hoped, you have the next semester to try again and to develop better study habits.