Studying for Finals

Photo by Angelina Litvin via Unsplash

For many courses in graduate school, the final exam determines a substantial part of the overall grade. That means a semester of work can be undone by one bad exam.

So what’s the secret to studying for finals? Three veteran exam takers with very different studying styles share this one key strategy: their preparation for the final occurs throughout the semester.

All three are focused on learning more than getting a good grade and are strategic about what they learn.

Ahmad Almashhadany owns a 3.9 GPA in The Citadel’s Project Management master’s degree program, which holds classes at the Lowcountry Graduate Center. He is the classic grinder who listens intently in class but takes no notes.

“When I try to make notes in class, people keep talking and I miss things,” he says.

In those rare instances when the professor says something is important, or writes something on the board, Almashhadany records it on his phone.

When class is over, he returns home and watches a recorded version of class, summarizing the material in his own words. “The important thing is understand the material. I don’t memorize anything,” he says.

Burl Kenner, now on his third master’s degree, this one in engineering management from the University of South Carolina, is the classic crammer.

He coasts through the semester without reading a textbook or even relying too much on lectures. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t preparing. Kenner is focused instead on learning the underlying logic and key concepts in the course. He takes meticulous notes during classes, and then come finals time, he crams for the exams. His 3.5 at USC is testament to the success of his methods – for him.

Kenner does admit two shortcomings of his method: 1. It doesn’t work for courses like calculus and accounting, where you really can’t fall behind like that, and 2. It causes a lot of stress at semester’s end. A retired Air Force officer who now works as a full time civilian in Air Force intelligence, Kenner’s family and work demands often don’t allow the luxury of a daily study

regimen that a full-time student might have. His technique might not work for everyone.

Jahnavi is straight out of college, now in the University of SC’s Engineering Management master’s program.

The classic over-achiever, she doesn’t like cramming and doesn’t spend hours writing and re-writing notes. She takes notes in class and then reviews them when she gets home, so that each class lesson is

reinforced before the next class.

Ayyanki works as a Teaching Assistant in the physics department at USC and is shocked at how unprepared her students are for literally every lab. She is forced to spend the first half of the class re-teaching the students what they should have learned in class that week.

“Students should start studying for exams when don’t have to,” she says.  “Pay more attention in class and you wouldn’t have to worry much about exams so much.”

One thing all three agree on is that understanding is more important than memorizing. They are strategic about what they learn, based on what they think is important and what is more likely to be tested.

As for specific studying tricks, there is voluminous research on what works. Here are a handful of empirically-validated tricks:

  1. Study for a few minutes just before bedtime. Research shows that our brains create strong memories out of the last events of the night.
  2. Break up the information into digestible chunks. Research shows we learn bits of information at a time rather than large amounts all at once.
  3. Write it down. The actual act of hand writing information reinforces it and incorporates several spheres of our brain in the process.
  4. Skip the allnighter. The marginal utility of extra hours of studying are offset by the loss of cognitive ability when we’re exhausted. Instead, plan better and get the sleep you need.
  5. Exercise. Just as your brain needs the workout, so does your body. Research shows that an hour of aerobic exercise improves cognitive functioning.
  6. Create a story. We learn out alphabet in a song and our musical scales with the mnemonic Every Good Boy Deserves Fun. Big Bird and Kermit helped us learn lessons with stories. All these strategies work for adults in graduate school too. Soc-Cah-Toa!
  7. Quiz yourself. Testing yourself reinforces what you know and reveals what you don’t.
  8. Turn off your phone.