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In a recent Student Health 101 survey, more than 80 percent of students agreed that the end of the semester is more stressful for them than any other time of the year. 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 ONE: Block Out Time

Ryan M., a graduate at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, says the biggest part of bouncing between multiple tasks is being able to make a schedule and sticking to it. By planning out his time in advance, he’s able to mentally prepare himself. “I tackle one step at a time,” he says. Sixty-three percent of the respondents to the Student Health 101 survey said they create a very specific calendar or to-do list, and 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, professor of educational psychology and co-director of Miami University’s Center for Human Development, Learning, and Technology. “[Your performance will be] at its peak when you study more often over the course of a period,” says Bergen.

STEP TWO: Break It Down

MacKenzie Lorenzato, a peer tutor at Peer Connections, a campus-wide tutoring and mentoring program at San Jose State University in California, suggests focusing on your goals for that moment. “Prioritize in a way that is actually functional; if it’s not going to work for your schedule or your personality, then it’s not going to work, period.”

To keep material fresh, you can “have 10-minute review sessions every day,” she says. “If you review the information 10 minutes a day for most days that week, you will have a better chance of remembering that information than if you only look at it the days you have class.”

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, Lorenzato encourages students to break down the process. She recommends spending time every day on a piece of the paper. “Set aside the first day to brainstorm, the second day to write a solid thesis, the third day to outline your paper, and the fourth day to write it,” she says, explaining that work is less overwhelming when spread out.

Re-I C., a senior at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, explains that when writing essays, she first develops her overall concept. “If I have a general idea of what to write about but I can’t think of a good introduction, I start from the middle and free-write, and work backwards to polish up a final product,” she says.

STEP THREE: Make Information Your Own

Retaining information can be difficult around finals, especially when juggling multiple ongoing projects. Bergen suggests finding a way to see how the material relates to your future goals. “Make it a meaningful framework and you will be able to retain the information in the long run,” she says.

This strategy helped Heather H., a junior 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 the “SQ4R” method: 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.

A Breakdown of SQ4R

“SQ4R” is a method for studying in which you 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 to remember it. Some students use flashcards 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 FOUR: Address Stress

Figure out what aspects of a project make you nervous. If the idea of working in groups stresses you out, Lorenzato recommends making sure “everyone is clear on the expectations” at the beginning, and Bergen suggests defining both 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 stress is sure to build up, and you need to let some of it go.

Lorenzato reminds students not to schedule every hour of every day and to get enough sleep. It can be helpful to designate a specific time for relaxing so that you don’t skip it or take a break that turns into many hours of accidentally lost time.

Peter P., a junior at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., always makes sure he takes time for himself. “It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of finals, but it’s not the end of the world,” he says.

While some students like to spread work over a number of days or a whole semester, others need to build on information as soon as they’ve learned it.

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.

More tips for prepping before finals

  • Monitor your own learning. If you’re struggling with something, speak with your instructor or a classmate to get some help.
  • Make a plan. Map out your strategy and stick to it.
  • Ask for help early. Talk over your study strategy with a peer tutor or mentor.
  • Organize your time and assignments using a calendar and other systems that work for you. More ideas about how to do this.
  • Give yourself extra time. Start studying 2 or 3 weeks before finals.
  • Chat about what you’re learning. Translating information into your own words, and sharing it, will help you retain it.
  • Find two or three people and form a study group. Even if you don’t share classes, you can help each other stay motivated and on task.
  • Use your school’s resources. The writing center, peer tutors, librarians, and counseling center can all support you and help with stress-management, too.
  • Keep your eye out for relaxing activities. Student organizations, residence life, and the health center may offer programs.

Take Action!

  • Break projects into manageable steps and tackle one thing at a time.
  • Block out the time you’ll need for each task.
  • Use repetition: go over material multiple times, in bite-size pieces.
  • Translate information into concepts you understand and remember.
  • Find ways to practice recalling information, such as talking about it with friends or a study group.
  • Make time to de-stress. Though it may seem counterintuitive, taking breaks actually allows you to concentrate more when you return to studying.

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