Sweaty palms. Anxiety. Racing heartbeat. Why do many students stress out about final exams?

We all know finals are coming, but it’s easy to push the demands of finals week to the back burner while addressing the day-to-day realities of class requirements and college life. We can move from day to day, week to week, and month to month, until finals week sneaks up and overwhelms us. A week or so before finals begin, anxiety and stress often increase while personal well-being decreases.

But what if there was a way to increase learning, reduce stress, and still perform effectively on final exams and projects? I have good news for you: There is a better way! However, it will take work to break ingrained habits and to replace them with practices that increase academic performance and contribute to greater emotional health.

It’s easy to give exams so much weight that they raise anxiety. Students sometimes view exams as a judgment of abilities, not just of knowledge: “If I didn’t do well on that test, it must mean I don’t have what it takes to pass this class, to be in this major, or maybe to be in college.” Given that exams are often a significant part of a course grade, stress over tests is understandable. However, too much stress decreases performance on tests and actually reduces the ability to demonstrate one’s knowledge. The best way to decrease anxiety about a test is to know the material.

With that said, I encourage students to see tests as part of the learning process. Many of us wouldn’t invest the time and energy to learn course material if we weren’t going to be tested on it, so professors who have challenging tests are actually doing us a favor! They are pushing us to learn material rather than just jump through hoops.

If you agree that learning is the goal of education and that tests are a part of that learning process, several strategies can help increase the learning, improve test performance, and decrease anxiety caused by lack of effective preparation.

Start preparing for finals today.

Take a few minutes each day to review class notes from that day, reinforcing what was learned and adding notes or questions for future reference.

Learn material so you’ll remember it a week after the test.

Instead of cramming as much into your brain so you can just spit it out on the test, focus on learning the material in a way that enables you to recall it a week after the test. I don’t want a nurse who answered a question on a test but doesn’t remember how to respond when I’m in the hospital! And learning for long-term recall results in deeper, true learning, not just short-term recognition or regurgitation.

Engage in spaced review of content.

At least once a week, review material from previous weeks – notes, readings, homework, etc. For a section exam, review material starting the day after the last test. For a cumulative exam, review material from the start of the semester up until the current week. This review shouldn’t take as much time as initial learning; you might spend 20 minutes a week reviewing material for one course. Take what has worked to learn in extracurricular activities (sports, music, dance, etc.) and apply it to your academic work. Practice, rehearse, repeat.

Test your knowledge early and often.

After reading a page, pause to recall what you just read or jot a brief note at the bottom of the page. After reading a chapter, try to summarize the key points. Create flash cards if memorization is needed. Meet with classmates to quiz each other (it’s harder to fool them into believing you know the answer than it is to fool yourself!). Practice recall, not just recognition.

Engage the community of learners.

Get together with other serious students to review notes, quiz each other, get feedback on ideas, or have them read your paper. If something isn’t clear, ask a classmate or your professor. Email might work for basic questions, but don’t hesitate to schedule a meeting with your professor to get help learning the material.

Take care of yourself.

Sleep is essential for effective intellectual functioning (and just about everything else!). The average college student should aim for eight hours of sleep per night. Staying up late to cram the night before an exam actually decreases performance on exams. Our brains need time for recovery and to eliminate toxins; otherwise, they won’t operate at peak performance. Study in increments. Four 25-minute sessions with a five-minute break will be more productive than working straight for two hours. Imagine an exercise activity; unless you’re an elite athlete, you probably take breaks or rotate activities within a workout session. Your brain benefits from the same chance to rest and recover.

If you have learning, physical or mental health disabilities that affect your ability to complete exams in the allotted time or location, you are not alone! Check out the Disability Services Office website (georgefox.edu/dso) for information about requesting accommodations.

My best advice for success on final exams (and every other exam) is this: Focus on practices that enhance deep learning.

Keep in mind that getting the most out of your education isn’t about checking boxes (went to class ... check; did the reading ... check; turned in homework ... check; took the test ... check). A rich education comes from investing in learning. Checking the boxes isn’t enough; those activities need to happen, but they are a means to an end, not the end in themselves. Approach education from a learning perspective rather than a task perspective. Tasks are something to get out of the way; effective learning takes a different mindset and different practices.

Check out this list of 10 Rules of Good Studying (and 10 Rules of Bad Studying) from Barbara Oakley’s book, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra). The book is well worth your time (and money), and provides engaging insight into research-based strategies for learning. Or, if you’re inclined, enroll in Barbara Oakley’s free online course, Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects.

If you want to discuss the ideas above – or explore other more specific learning strategies – schedule an appointment with the Academic Resource Center (the ARC). Or sign up for weekly academic coaching meetings with the ARC as a way of building in time for review, self-testing, support, and accountability.

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