Three beneficial study habits for finals week

Students can utilize psychological concepts in order to memorize and study material for year-end assessments
Three beneficial study habits for finals week

As finals week slowly approaches, students are beginning to feel the rampant stress and scramble that finals week always entails. With final exams covering a multitude of subjects and material that disappeared from students’ memories months ago, many students are struggling to find the most effective means of studying.

Thankfully, there are a few key studying tips that have been psychologically proven to be effective in solidifying concepts in long term memory: sleep, the spacing effect and recall.


Sleep well, think well. Seems fairly intuitive, right? Apparently not. At Palo Alto High School, it is not uncommon for students to be getting less than seven hours of sleep for a variety of different reasons: hours spent at a school or club sport, homework and projects or too many extracurriculars. It is clear that many students have become accustomed to prioritizing other facets of their busy lifestyles over sleep.

With finals around the corner, students will need to draw the line between studying and sleeping once more: what is the perfect balance between getting an appropriate amount of sleep and absorbing enough information to succeed in upcoming finals?

While reviewing and studying material is effective to a certain extent, it appears to be far more effective for one’s health and memory to be well rested. In fact, it is psychologically proven that sleep deprivation directly impairs memory functions, which can ultimately detract from one’s ability to perform well during a final or other assessment.

“When we are sleep deprived, we perform all cognitive tasks worse, whether it’s focusing, learning or recalling,” Advanced Placement (AP) Psychology teacher Christopher Farina said. “Therefore all stages of memory [such as attention, rehearsal and recall] will suffer.”

Because sleep deprivation negatively affects all facets of memory, which include the capabilities to learn and recall information, studying into late hours of the night is often less effective than going to sleep at an earlier time. Remember to get at least eight hours of sleep so that you can perform attentively and effectively.

The Spacing Effect

For many, the night before an exam seems to be the most convenient time to study — this technique allows the information to be fresh in one’s mind, so one can easily recall the information when tested on it the next day. However, contrary to popular belief, psychological research seems to indicate the exact opposite. Learning information gradually over a long period of time, a phenomenon known as the spacing effect, is much more effective in ensuring that the lessons one learns are retained in long term memory.

“If you’ve crammed one time, then Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve shows that while you might be able to keep a bare majority of the information in your memory through the test, you’ll forget a large portion of it within a day or so afterwards,” Farina said.

While it is often tempting to study information for the sake of doing well on an upcoming test or final, it is far more important to actually learn the information in a way that will promote retention in the long run.

Furthermore, if the information comes up in the future, students are much more comfortable and familiar with the material if they have studied to actually learn the material, not just crammed. The topics and subjects discussed today are likely to resurface in students’ lives in the future, whether it be in an advanced college course or later in their high school careers.

“Obviously the goal of learning is not to have someone memorize information long enough to answer a few multiple choice questions, but rather to understand the information deeply and for them to maintain that learning over time,” Farina said. “In addition, if one forgets the information from unit one by the time of the final, one has to relearn that information all over again.”

In general, the spacing effect ensures a far calmer finals week because students will retain the information for the long term, which is especially helpful for cumulative exams later one, such as finals or AP exams.

“Research suggests spaced-practice as opposed to massed-practice as the way to study,” Farina said. “Study a little bit regularly every day for a few days, and as you feel as though you’ve truly learned the material, you can study it less frequently.”

Recall, Not Recognition

By now, most students are fairly familiar with two types of tests: multiple choice and free response. While both are effective ways of testing one’s knowledge on a subject, free response questions tend to test a deeper understanding of the topic. Why? This distinction between these two test formats is largely due to the difference between two forms of memory, recall and recognition.

While recall, tested by free response questions or fill in the blank questions, measures one’s ability to retain and retrieve information on their own, recognition, tested by multiple choice questions, measures one’s ability to only identify items that they have previously seen or learned.

Furthermore, because recall requires one to learn, store and retrieve the information, it often demonstrates a more profound grasp on the material.

This distinction can also be applied to study habits — to ensure a more comprehensive understanding, one can use study habits that test their recall, not simply recognition.

“[To study,] ask the student to explain the information to someone else, [which demonstrates] recall, who can verify it, rather than just reviewing multiple-choice questions, [which demonstrates recognition],” Farina said.

To better understand the topics students are studying, students can engage in interactive review exercises that use more portions of the brain to ensure better memory of the topic.

“Writing and speaking out loud engage more of your brain than just thinking about it, and any time you can involve more regions of your brain in studying you’ll better recall the information later,” Farina said. “If you understand information well enough to explain it to someone, you probably understand it well enough to demonstrate that knowledge on a test.”

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