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More than 50 percent of students agree that the end of the semester is more stressful than any other time of year, according to a recent Student Health 101 survey. In addition to dealing with finals, students find themselves managing group projects and other assignments, too. Having the right strategy is the key to a more productive, less stressful finals season.

Step 1: Block out time

Tessa L., a second-year student from University of Northern BC, says she creates a timeline to figure out when things are due so she can prepare in advance. This helps her to complete assignments ahead of schedule. Seventy percent of students we surveyed said they create a very specific calendar or to-do list, and they go through it methodically. This can reduce getting overwhelmed and provide you with a sense of control over your responsibilities.

Having an organized plan for when you’ll study is much more helpful than cramming, says Dr. Doris Bergen, Distinguished Professor of Educational Psychology Emerita at Miami University. According to an exam prep module from Queen’s University in Ontario, regular and systematic review during the term is necessary to facilitate understanding and learning. Self-testing should also be applied during review so that you can gauge the extent of your learning.

Step 2: Break it down

University of Guelph’s Learning Services Centre recommends patience and flexibility. If certain time management strategies don’t work for you, try a different one. For some, studying in small chunks of time works well. For others, two-hour blocks with a 15-minute break might be the best way.

To keep material fresh, you can use small amounts of spare time to review notes before or after class, says MacKenzie Lorenzato, a former Peer Tutor at San Jose State University in California. According to University of Victoria’s Student Counselling Services, even just 10 minutes can be useful.

For many students, repetition increases retention. Going over material multiple times, in bite-size pieces, can be more effective than trying to absorb everything all at once. Some find that reviewing information in various settings (such as while waiting in line, on the bus, and in a study space) helps solidify the concepts.

For papers, break down the process and spend time every day on a different piece of the paper, says Lorenzato. Adelaide B., a second-year University of Toronto student, has a step-by-step writing process. “I pick sources first so I don’t come up with a great thesis then find out there are no good books on the subject available. Thesis comes next. Then I write an outline in point form, write up a draft, and lastly type it up and revise it.” Work is less overwhelming when spread out.

When writing essays, try developing an overall concept before putting pen to paper. This way you can start forming arguments and write the body, even if you’re uncertain of how to start the piece.

Step 3: Make information your own

Retaining information can be difficult around finals, especially when juggling multiple ongoing projects. Making content maps not only allows you to find meaning in what you are studying, but also to see how it relates to your future goals, says Bergen. Make it a meaningful framework and you will be able to retain the information in the long run.

This strategy helped Heather H., a third-year undergraduate at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, in one of her hardest courses: statistics. “I had an instructor who put it into a social science perspective for me and helped me to understand why I need this [information] and how I am going to use it.”

Lorenzato recommends using a classic text-studying method called “SQ4R”: Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Write, Review. This process turns passive reading and studying into an active exercise in which you translate information into concepts you understand and remember.

University of Guelph’s Learning Services recommends being really engaged in reading by taking notes and jotting down any questions that pop into your head. Getting together and discussing the material with people from your courses can help in this process

“SQ4R” is a method for studying. The idea is to translate information into concepts you understand and will remember. Here are the steps:

Survey: Get an overview of the material. For example, read the title, subheadings, and, if it’s a textbook, the questions at the end of the chapter.

Question: As you survey the information, think of the subheadings and objectives as questions. You can rephrase them in your head or on paper, if that helps.

Read: Be selective about what you read and create meaningful associations between different sections of the content.

Recite: Put the ideas into your own words. (Doing this with a tutor, classmate, or instructor can confirm that you’re on the mark.)

Write: Make connections or maps of interconnected ideas and trim down the information. Large concepts are much easier to recall than facts alone.

Review: Go over the information in a way that helps you remember it. Some students use flash cards or cut information into smaller, digestible bits and review them frequently.

“The more students engage in their reading, the better they do,” says Lorenzato. Getting together and discussing material with people from your courses can help in this process.

Step 4: Address stress

Figure out what aspects of a project make you uncomfortable. For example, if the idea of working in groups stresses you out, Dr. Bergen suggests making sure everyone is clear on the expectations at the beginning. Group members need to know both their group and individual responsibilities. Outlining these early on will help to avoid conflicts, and also help you focus your energy exactly where it’s needed.



Also, schedule time for relaxation. This might seem counterintuitive (“I should spend every waking moment at the library”), but it’s a stressful time, and you need to let some of it go.

Do not to schedule every hour of every day and be sure to get enough sleep, healthy food, and exercise, says the Queen’s University Learning Strategies module.

Adelaide doesn’t often set aside down time. “I don’t really designate relaxing time intentionally, I just get blocked after working for a while. I take a break, but I get worried again about meeting my deadline and have another spurt of productivity,” she says. Many students find it helpful to designate a specific time for relaxing and use it as motivation to get things done. This will also prevent skipping it or having a break turn into many hours of accidentally lost time.

Karen R., a fourth-year student from University of Lethbridge, Alberta, rewards herself by baking cupcakes or watching her favourite TV shows—but only once she’s finished a certain task. She finds that this motivates her to finish the task.

The key to effective studying is to be proactive and focus on what you want and need to learn. The more engaged you are in the process, the more success you’ll have when it comes time to demonstrate your knowledge.

Here are more tips for prepping for finals:

  • Monitor your own learning. If you’re struggling with something, talk to your instructor or a classmate to get help.
  • Go over material many times, in bite-size pieces. This can be more useful than trying to learn everything at once.
  • Organize your time and assignments using a calendar and other systems that work for you.
  • Give yourself extra time. Start studying two or three weeks before an exam.
  • Chat about what you’re learning. Translating information into your own words and sharing it with others will help you remember it.
  • Find two or three people and form a study group. You can help each other stay motivated and on task.

Use your school’s resources. Instructors, the writing centre staff, peer tutors, teaching assistants, library staff, and the counselling centre can all support you and help with stress management, too.

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Article sources

Doris Bergen, distinguished professor of educational psychology emerita, Miami University, Florida.

MacKenzie Lorenzato, former peer tutor at Peer Connections, San Jose State University, San Jose, California.

Mt. San Jacinto College. (n.d.) SQ4R method. Retrieved from https://www.msjc.edu/LearningResourceCenter/StudentSuccessThemes/Documents/SQR4%20Method%20(2).pdf

Queen’s University. (n.d.) Test and Exam Prep. Retrieved from https://sass.queensu.ca/exam-prep/

Student Health 101 surveys, October, 2012 and December, 2018.

University of Guelph. (n.d.) Effective Time Planning Strategies. Retrieved from https://www.lib.uoguelph.ca/get-assistance/studying/time-management/effective-time-planning-strategies

University of Victoria. (n.d.) Hints for Planning Study Time. Retrieved from https://www.uvic.ca/services/counselling/assets/docs/Hintsforplanningstudytime.pdf