On Finals: Tips for the Season of Exams

As students and faculty wrap up their last week of classes, complete final projects, and prepare for exams, one can feel the sense of urgency around campus. Beyond the end of a semester, the final month of a calendar year can be a stressful time. Businesses strive to meet annual goals, friends and families race to check off their lists of gifts to buy, people to see, places to visit. Paradoxically, this time of holiday reflection can be one of intense distraction and strain.

Over the years, many have written articles on how best to prepare for finals. Tips include obvious advice, such as “get enough sleep” (which is, admittedly, sometimes easier said than done). Like adequate rest, some of the other recommendations are applicable beyond academic achievement. Replace the word study with any verb—work, socialize, play—and many tips are great advice. I would encourage faculty to discuss these tips or others with students. Here are three of my favorites:

  1. Learn how you study best. Each individual has strengths and weaknesses. We sometimes try so hard to overcome our weaknesses that we fail to capitalize on our strengths. What is effective for you? When it comes to studying, do you prefer reviewing notes, writing outlines, listening to lectures? When it comes to family and friends, are you better one on one or in large groups? When it comes to projects, do you like working largely by yourself or in groups? Do what works for you.
  2. Form study groups. Participating in groups allows us to practice two important skills: first learning to delegate and trust, and second practicing teaching and learning. Perhaps the best way to find out whether you have mastered a topic is to explain it, in simple terms, to someone else. Moreover, in our complex world, there are few challenges or projects that can be carried out in complete independence.
  3. Know when to stop studying. While striving for excellence is desirable, we must resist making the perfect the enemy of the good. Will staying up an extra two hours to memorize a sidebar concept really be worth the careless mistakes on central themes that may result from sleep deprivation? Will turning down an invitation to a reception that would add more stress to an already hectic schedule really improve your relationship with the host? Will purchasing something beyond your financial means express your affection for a loved one any more than a handmade treat?

As we transition through this season together, let us make it a time of true learning. Let us enjoy each gift and each challenge. By simply viewing our to-do lists as summaries not of what we have to do, but what we get to do, it is easy to recognize just how fortunate we are.