Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
February 4, 2023

The science of studying for finals

By AKUL KESARWANI | December 13, 2022

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STEVEN SIMPSON / PHOTO EDITOR

Brody Learning Commons is open 24 hours during reading period. 

It’s almost time for finals here at Hopkins! For many students, that means a lot of late-night study sessions at the library pumped with caffeine. In this stressful time, it’s important to understand how students study most effectively to achieve the best results.

Elise Walck-Shannon, a biology lecturer and researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, published a study in CBE—Life Sciences Education that analyzed the relationship between study habits and academic performances in a large introductory biology course.

In an interview with The News-Letter, Walck-Shannon highlighted that an important takeaway from the study is that active approaches to learning yielded better exam results than passive approaches to learning. Active learning is defined as studying through direct involvement in the learning process, whereas passive learning includes receiving and internalizing information.

In the study, students took a test before and after completing the biology course to control for academic preparation. Students then reported their studying habits after the exams in the course. Walck-Shannon noted that they controlled for study time and class absences to get a better understanding of study strategies and academic performance.

“We asked in a free response question to list the type of study strategies they typically do. We took that list and found the most common themes and created choices students could choose from,“ she said. “Then we estimated the amount of time they spent using each of those strategies.”

The three strategies that had the largest positive effect on academic performance were using problem sets, explaining a concept to yourself and others and self-quizzing, which includes using flashcards or taking practice tests. Other studies have also found that taking more practice tests was correlated with higher performance on the final exam. 

Walck-Shannon noted that all three study habits force students to form an understanding of the connection between concepts.

“When you’re trying to remember something, ask yourself why does this make sense?,“ she said. “This will help you be able to recall it later, and it will help all of the things you are learning to come together if you are able to make those connections for yourself.”

Another variable measured in Walck-Shannon’s study was the student’s judgment of learning, a self-estimate of how much they learned. Students tended to overestimate their learning when using passive study strategies like rereading or copying their notes. It turns out that effective study strategies actually include intentional difficulties to make the student put more effort into learning the material. It may feel like you haven’t mastered a concept when using active learning strategies, but that is the desired effect.

Distractions also play a big role in study habits. Being distracted while studying was negatively associated with exam scores in Walck-Shannon’s study. 

To avoid distractions, Walck-Shannon recommended that students should create a plan beforehand. This plan should include implementation intentions, which are if-then statements on what you will do if an obstacle or distraction arises.

“The important part is to plan from the outset, so you don’t get too caught up in distractions,” she said. “For example, if I find myself checking my phone, then I will turn it off and set it aside.”

Another major concern during finals is getting enough high-quality sleep, especially when the library at Hopkins is open 24 hours during reading period and finals. Walck-Shannon reflected on how sleep has been shown to play an important role in academic performance.

“All cognitive processes depend on being well-rested,“ she said. “Getting enough sleep not just the day before, but a few days before a final will be incredibly important.”

Cramming is also not a good idea — focusing on spacing out studying sessions has been shown to improve learning, especially on application-type tests. Interleaving is also an effective study strategy where you mix up studying and practicing different topics in each session.

In addition to study strategies, another factor during finals is the high stress that surrounds this time period. Stress can be inconducive to studying properly; one study found that increased anxiety around math in students was associated with failing to complete more effortful, and possibly helpful, study strategies. 

To counter the negative effects of stress on academic performance, creating a detailed plan is important. The plan should include how much you will study each day, what time you will study, where you will study and what you will do with each session. Additionally, you should remain flexible and be willing to revise the plan if it is not working.

Hopefully using this information can help you study for finals and make this season a bit less stressful. Good luck, Blue Jays! 


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