Imagine running a marathon with only a week’s worth of training.
Sure, you might jog a few miles here and there in the months before the race, but you really only get down to brass tacks just before the big day. Beads of cold sweat drip down your face the moment you step up to the starting line. You try to clear your head, but it’s too groggy from all the late-night tossing and turning. Why didn’t you take the time to train? How will you ever reach the finish line?
Does this scenario sound familiar? Maybe that’s because a 26.2-mile race and final exams both involve months of hard work broken up into small, manageable increments. Those who wait until the last minute to train are likely to bonk or worse forfeit altogether.
At the Longhorn Center of Academic Excellence (LCAE) and the Sanger Learning Center, Sharmin Sharif is something of a head coach to her student mentees. An accounting sophomore in the McCombs School of Business, she has studying down to a science literally. At both centers, she teaches research-based study strategies to her fellow students and shows them how to stay on top of their own training calendar. Like any good coach, she tracks her students’ progress at the LCAE, motivating them to keep up momentum and finish strong.
Just in time for finals, Sharif shares some studying do’s and don’ts. Read on to learn how to drop those poor study habits and gain a competitive edge.
We’re in the thick of finals week. Why do you seem so calm?
There’s a trick to alleviating test anxiety and stress. Throughout the semester, I have been staggering my study sessions in small increments. I keep a simple one-page weeklong spreadsheet for blocking out study sessions throughout the entire day from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. If I stick to the schedule, I can relax right before finals. This is a highly effective system that I share with my student mentees. I’ll even keep their schedules on hand and follow up with them to see how much progress they’re making during the week. This not only reminds them to study, it also gives them an extra incentive to follow through.
What is the best way to prepare for a big exam?
Do not wait a few days to review your notes from class. Research shows that spending at least 30 minutes to an hour a day going over your notes after class while the information is still fresh will help you retain 60 percent of knowledge, as opposed to only 40 percent if you procrastinate. This strategy will not only help you stay on top of the material throughout the semester, it will also give you confidence and a sense of calm when taking the exam. This is especially helpful for those who suffer from test anxiety.
Are late night study sessions worthwhile?
That all depends on your own personal time clock. If you’re more mentally alert late at night, then go for it. But if you’re more productive and efficient earlier in the day, that’s when you should block out your study time. You should also pay attention to the time of day when you are at your sharpest. I’m a morning person, so that’s when I tackle my toughest subjects. I save the easier subjects for later in the day when I’m more likely to be tired.
Aside from cramming, how else are students sabotaging themselves?
Another terrible study habit many of us learned in high school is to simply memorize facts and details. Instead, you should be looking at your notes with a critical eye and asking questions about things that don’t make sense. Make use of your professor’s office hours and ask broad questions. Even if you don’t have any questions, listen to other students’ questions and take more notes. This is called “input/output” learning. Input learners passively memorize facts and details. Output learners, however, are more successful at retaining knowledge because they’re actively finding holes in their notes and asking questions to understand the big picture.
How can study guides help or hurt students?
Study guides can be useful if you use them as just that: a guide. It all goes back to “input/output” learning. If you passively use the study guide by memorizing the answers, you’re not going to be prepared for broad-based questions, which inevitably will be on the test. The study guide should really only be used as a reference point for when you find holes in the notes that you’ve been actively reviewing all semester long.
Do study groups help?
I work better alone, but it really depends on the person. If you don’t trust yourself to stay away from social media and YouTube videos, a study group could be the answer. Just make sure you surround yourself with people who want to work, rather than friends who just want to turn it into a social hour.
Speaking of social media, how do you avoid these constant distractions?
It’s important to minimize distractions as much as you can. Personally, I can’t cut myself off from social media because my family lives in another country and that’s really how we stay connected. In my weekly study schedule, I have a safety margin for email and Facebook. Some people turn off their cell phones or turn off their alerts. Others deactivate their Facebook accounts until finals are over. No matter what your system is, you should make some sort of strategy for keeping those online distractions at bay.
More about the Longhorn Center of Academic Excellence: Housed within the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, the center provides academic support and peer-coaching services for all UT Austin students. In one-on-one meetings, peer coaches are available to help students create personal plans for academic success. Go to this website to book an appointment.
More about the Sanger Learning Center: Housed in the School of Undergraduate Studies, the center is the university’s main resource for academic support. Services include peer academic coaching, one-on-one tutoring, self-testing and more. Go to this website to book an appointment with a peer academic coach.