If you’re like most adults, and the sheer memory of studying for exams sends you into a panicky downward spiral, imagine how kids today feel. You may have barely passed your English Literature final by pulling an all-nighter and downing a strong pot of coffee, but consider the candy store of distractions tempting students nowadays. You had solitaire and AOL messenger. Today, students have an all-you-can-eat buffet of digital distractions like Instagram feeds, TikTok, phone alerts, and streaming services just to name a few.
Fortunately, there are plenty of educators and child experts who are well aware of the current state of digital intrusions, and who have also experienced what works and what doesn’t when it comes to buckling down and studying for big tests.
“My top tip is to keep your arousal level at the moderate level. Try not to get too anxious, but also don’t get too fatigued from studying. You’ll encode and recall the most information if you are in the sweet spot of a medium level of arousal,” says Dr. Jeanine Stefanucci, Professor of Psychology at the University of Utah. “How do you get that? Listen to some upbeat music (preferably without lyrics), drink some coffee, stay satiated in terms of hunger and food, and get up and walk around once an hour.”
Aside from following this sound advice for keeping your nervous system in check, and the generally good guidance to get rest and stay healthy, students feeling nervous about preparing for exams might also benefit from the tips below:
Have a Study Plan
Students know in advance the dates for their finals, so they should prioritize when and how much to study for each final.
“As a professor who has administered multiple final exams over the years and prepared hundreds of students to do well on them, I can say a sound studying strategy, which also helps avoid procrastination, is for students to have a study plan — no matter how informal,” says Dr. Robin Brooks, an assistant professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.
Prioritization depends on the particular student, however. For instance, some students may choose to study for the exams in a chronological manner based on the due dates, while others may need to study in small spurts for exams that are due later but that cause them greater anxiety.
Use the Pomodoro Technique to Schedule Breaks
An effective, free, and relatively simple technique that students can use to stay focused on the studying at hand is the Pomodoro Technique, which helps them break the study materials into smaller tasks. The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method that uses a timer to break work into intervals, typically 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks.
Because many students’ diet and sleep patterns change for the worse during the stressful end-of-semester crunch time, using such a technique can help with retaining information, notes Brooks.
Do Your Homework Assignments Right After Class
The sooner you review what you’ve learned or covered during class, the sooner you integrate it and the more likely you’ll remember it.
“One of my top tips for staying on top of your work is to go to class, and when you leave class, immediately do your homework that night and not put it off,” says Christine Sylvain, founder and executive director of the Path to College Fellowship, whose mission is to secure the acceptance of high-achieving, low-income students into top-tier universities.
Capitalizing on that timing is really important so that when finals season comes, you can review your notes and you’re re-triggering the brain pathways that you already created during the semester.
The Active Recall Method Points Out What You’ve Missed
Active recall is a learning technique that challenges what you think you know, and helps identify gaps. After you read a text or attend a lecture, make notes of everything you can remember (without looking at the text or your notes). Then, using the text or notes, use a different color pen and add notes of everything you missed. This highlights the pieces you need to spend time revising, plus the process of “correcting” your notes is a form of revision. Repeat this until you can recall all of the important information.
“I recently discovered the active recall method, and I’ve found it so helpful I’m trying to share it as widely as possible,” says Colleen Stevenson of Chooseyouruni.ca, which provides information on university and program choices for undergraduate university students.
Know Your Personal Learning Style
Another tip for test-taking is to know your learning style. Audio learners will do best by discussing the material out loud with someone, i.e. a study group. Social media affords opportunities for remote study groups. Instagram’s #Studygram or Twitter’s #studytwt often hosts “study with me” sessions.
Visual learners, on the other hand, will succeed by writing things down; for these folks, Sylvain says that re-transcribing notes or making flashcards can work well.
Physically Remove Yourself from your Cell Phone
It’s time to address the elephant in the room: your cell phone. As possibly the biggest attention thief the world has ever known, students studying for a test should either leave their cell phones in another room and check it during a Pomodoro break, or —at the very least — set downtimes on your apps and silence notifications.
Use Tech to Your Advantage
If you’re finding trouble keeping assignments organized, Sylvain recommends using a project management tool like Trello which lets you create a board for each class, on which you can list different assignments and their due dates, add comments, links, passwords, etc.
Other tech on the market can help students learn to focus through neurofeedback. Narbis smart glasses (affiliate link), for example, teach users’ brains to pay attention through sensors that track specific brain waves. When you are distracted, the glasses change tint. When you concentrate, the glasses instantly clear.
Trick Your Brain into “Might as Well”
One top tip to prevent procrastination surrounding studying is to adopt the "might as well" mindset to increase momentum. Set a time to study for 5 minutes- then since you're already there, you "might as well" finish the chapter, says Bethany McCarter, a certified teacher with years of experience developing and implementing curriculum in the classroom, and founder of The Homeschool Graduate blog.
Use Flashcards for Memorization
McCarter also believes using flashcards for memorization, whether physical or digital, is the most reliable way to cram before a test.
Sleep and Diet Directly Impact Your Brain
People don’t realize the huge effect that sleep (or lack of) has on the performance of your brain. If you’re not sleeping, you’re robbing yourself of your ability to do your best.
Brain boosting foods — almonds, avocados, and walnuts — contain proteins and healthy fats that are really good for your system, as is remembering to drink water.
“Stay hydrated. Often when we get a headache it’s not just that we’ve been studying for too long, it’s that we’ve been dehydrated. I always tell kids, put away your sugar lattes and honey buns because they’re not helping you,” says Sylvain.
In addition, adequate rest is critical to absorbing information and for knowledge to become familiar and easy to recall.
“When I was preparing for my master's written examinations, I would sleep at 11:00 p.m. and no later. I'd also wake up at a comfortable time like 7:00 a.m.,” says Deashri Dutta, a content marketer. “While studying, I would take breaks where I'd go for long walks or just sit in a cafe and enjoy myself, completely detached from my studies. When I came back to study, I'd feel refreshed and the words in the books just didn't seem so intimidating anymore.”
Simply put, students should think about preparing for finals in a personalized way. Developing a plan of attack, and understanding the way you learn best — whether from discussing it with others, or from rewriting your notes — is an important first step. Doing homework while the information is fresh in your mind will also help you retain the knowledge. Another critical element for preparing for finals is testing yourself on what you don’t know. You might think you understand a concept, but if you can’t explain it to a friend, then you don’t actually know the material as well as you thought.
Exams don’t have to be scary. Once you put your phone away and create a rough plan of attack, even citing examples of 19th century bildungsromans can seem possible.