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Acing final exams: the do’s and the don’ts

March 27, 2019
By Younes Medkour

It’s that time of the semester. Classes are almost over, and the final examination period will soon begin. At this point, students tend to be stressed out of fear of not performing well on finals. Unfortunately, the only solution they often find is to turn into restless machines. They sleep less and drink more coffee and energy drinks. Some even take non-prescription drugs like Ritalin, Adderall, Vyvanse and Concerta to stay focused.

The worst part is that the techniques they use to study are counter-productive. They spend hours highlighting and rewriting notes. Some even read their textbooks because they have never attended their lectures.

If you recognize yourself in this description, you got it all wrong. If you want to go through this period with ease and ace your exams, I suggest you do the following:

Organize your studying. The first thing to do is to devise a plan with deadlines for the topics you need to review. For each course, break down the study material into bits that you will cover in 50-minute study sessions. Make sure to write down the topics you will cover and when you will cover them. This schedule will help you stay on track with your studying.

Actively learn the material. Highlighting your notes will not get you anywhere — it will only turn your notebook into a rainbow. Rewriting your notes is not any better. To master a subject, you need to practice it by testing yourself. You can make flash cards for fact-based topics, solve practice problems, review your assignments and midterms, and test yourself with past finals.

You should also ask your professors for course-specific studying techniques. They know better since they are designing the final exams.

Avoid cramming. Focusing on one course for long continuous sessions is useless. As mentioned before, it is better to break down the material into smaller bits and to space them out. This allows your brain to process the material more easily. A good approach is to alternate between two courses. I suggest you plan 50-minute study periods with 10-minute breaks between each session.

Get enough sleep. All-nighters are counter-productive. At first, you will be focused and efficient. But the moment you start getting tired, your ability to think rationally and logically takes a hit. Then you will get into a sleep-deprived state, which comes with a reduced ability to form memories and a poor ability to solve complex problems. I discuss the importance of sleep in learning and memory consolidation in a previous post titled Sleep or fail.

Avoid stimulants. During finals, students consume a lot more coffee and energy drinks. Some students even take non-prescription drugs to stay focused on their studying. Individuals diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) use these drugs and doctors control each dosage. If you were not diagnosed with ADHD, you don’t need drugs to focus. These pills are not the same ones as in the movie Limitless. You will not become a genius by taking them.

The reality is that taking these drugs will drain your energy and make you will feel dull after the effects wears off. Combine that with an accumulated lack of sleep and many caffeinated drinks, and you turn into a zombie.

How is this helping you learn and stay focused on your studying? There is nothing that can replace sleep. It is during sleep that you recover your ability to focus, to think rationally, to learn and to form long-lasting memories.

Instead, I suggest sleeping well, eating well and staying hydrated.

Study with your friends. Lastly, after covering the course material by yourself, meet up with a friend and explain the course material to each other. Learning by teaching is the best technique to master any subject. To explain something, you need to understand it in great depth. Teaching requires you to structure your ideas and vocalize them, which will put all the learned bits together. This will strengthen your understanding and retention of the material.

Following these tips will probably save you some trouble. The semester is almost over and summer break is coming up quickly. Until then, you must put in a lot of effort and study smart — not hard — if you want to ace your finals. With that being said, I wish you good luck and happy finals.

About the author

Younes Medkour received his Bachelor's degree in Biology from Concordia University. He is now a doctoral candidate studying aging in Dr. Vladimir Titorenko’s laboratory. He co-leads a research project that resulted in the discovery of the most potent anti-aging pharmacological intervention. He is currently working on unveiling the mechanisms by which this extract extends longevity and delays the onset of diseases related to old age, such as cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. 


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