During Finals Week (Friday, December 15 - Thursday, December 21, 2017), more than a thousand exams are scheduled—some occurring simultaneously. Naturally, this could lead to many students feeling stressed. To stay calm and balanced, Barnard professors offer expert tips on how best to study, maintain mental health, and stay physically fit. Hint: Cramming doesn’t work.

There's a Right Way to Hit the Books

Professor of Psychology Lisa Son’s research and teaching interests include cognitive psychology, learning, and memory. At the Lisa Son Lab, where she has collaborated with Stephanie Pfirman (Professor of Environmental Science and Co-Chair of the Department of Environmental Science) and Rajiv Sethi (Professor of Economics), she studies how we can identify when we don't know something and if our metacognitive knowledge is accurate. Here, Son shares her tips for the best way to study.

1. Ask the right questions

The most important thing is to focus on what you are learning and what you are able to retrieve. You should NOT focus on your exam performance. Here is an example of the types of questions you should and should not ask yourself:

Do: Ask yourself, "Can I explain this to my best friend?"
Do: Ask yourself, "What might I forget tomorrow?"
Do: Ask yourself, "Why is this knowledge an important piece of the larger picture?"

Don’t: Ask yourself, "Will I remember this for the exam?"

The latter question (or any question that forces you to think about exam performance) is more likely to lead to an illusion of knowing because you can answer the question without actually retrieving the information. Asking yourself a question such as, "Can I explain this to someone?" forces you to actually go through the process of explaining, decreasing potential for illusions. This type of focus on learning and retrieving is also beneficial because you are more likely to notice where you lack knowledge that you would need on the exam.  

2. Form a group—then test each other

The best learning strategy is to study in groups. During group study, you can take turns "teaching" each other different pieces of information. Teaching—or even just planning to teach—is the best way to consolidate what you have learned. Studying with others allows you to receive different perspectives on the same content, resulting in different ways to access the information later. This strategy will also help decrease potential illusions of knowing or if you are cramming (which hopefully is not the case!).

Another helpful technique is to create sample exams for each other and to actually take them. Your instructors may be more experienced and have more expertise on the topic, but they still need to write exam questions, and there will likely be lots of overlap between your questions and theirs.

3. Plan ahead

Avoid cramming. If there is time, you will want to go over the materials deliberately and slowly. If you have left studying to the last minute (literally!), overloading yourself with information will lead to confusion, stress, and certainly weaker encoding of the information.

More from Son, on "Spacing One’s Study."

Get Your Head Right

Tara Well, Professor of Psychology, has decades of experience researching emotions and motivation. Her current work centers on how mirror meditation can mitigate stress, self-objectification, and narcissism and increase self-compassion. She offers ways to stay mentally healthy when stressing out feels so easy.

4. Happy body = happy brain

Take care of your body. Getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and taking stretching breaks while you are studying are really important. Your physical body is the vehicle through which you experience life. (At the very least, it carries your brain around!) When your body is healthy, you might not give it much thought, but when you’re sick you then understand that without a healthy body you won’t be able to do things you want to do in life. In the short term, your healthy body will support you in performing your best mentally on all your academic tasks. In the long term, it supports you in having a high-quality life. Not taking care of your body, even in the sprint through finals week, can take its toll and have cumulative effects on your overall health.

5. Perspective is important

Keep things in perspective. Students may see the outcome of their academic performance as an almost “life or death” situation when in fact each grade is just a small part of their overall academic performance. I urge students to keep in mind that their future is not determined by their grades for one semester and to a large degree probably isn’t going to be determined by their grades at all. Quality of life is enjoying what you’re doing in the moment rather than working really hard and suffering so that someday you might have a happy life. Research finds great benefits in the ability to stay in the present moment.

6. Take deep breaths

As you probably know, anxiety decreases performance mainly because it interferes with our concentration. Research shows one of the quickest ways to reduce feeling anxious is to change your breathing. A few minutes before your exam, tune into your breath and slow it down by breathing deeply. Practice this three-part deep breathing: As you breathe in let your belly, rib cage, and collarbones expand, and as you breathe out let your collar bones, ribcage and belly gently contract. Performing three-part deep breathing for just a couple minutes can drastically improve your mental state and have amazing benefits on your performance.

 7. Focus on self

If you meditate, you probably know it’s especially beneficial to keep up your practice when the pressure is on. Students in my Mirror Meditation research lab do a daily 10/10/10 meditation practice: Ten minutes of silent mirror mediation where they gaze at their own reflections with no goal other than to stay present with themselves, 10 minutes to create a video journal in which they say whatever they want, and then another 10 minutes to watch the video journal with full attention paid to the body’s sensation and emotions. My research shows that doing the 10/10/10 as a daily practice reduces stress and increases self-compassion. Students find the practice especially useful during stressful times like finals week.

To learn more, read Well’s blog The Clear Mirror.

Break A Sweat

Chair and Senior Associate in Physical Education Lisa Northrop trains her expertise on mind/body health and yoga. She emphasizes wellness as a way to achieve a balanced inner state of health, which helps us to function more efficiently and creatively in the world. Northrop’s philosophy about achieving optimal health is all-inclusive, encompassing the physical, occupational, social, intellectual, environmental, emotional, and spiritual. Here, the yoga expert explains how the body always helps the mind.

8. The 20-minute plan

Sparing an hour a day to exercise during finals seems impossible. So don’t! Instead, move your body 20 minutes every day. Choose an activity that is right for you and commit to doing it regularly. People ask me all the time what the “best” exercise is. My answer is, “The one you will do!” When is the best time to exercise? Whatever time you will actually DO IT! Your head will be clearer and you will be more positive, resilient, and focused to return to studying. Think about it this way: If you don’t do something to relieve stress proactively, your body will take what it needs somehow, usually in the form of staring out into space for 20 minutes. So instead, use that 20 minutes to enhance your physical, mental, and emotional health. You will always feel better afterwards. Guaranteed.  

9. Get into a groove

Frequency is more important than duration. So exercising 20 minutes, six days per week is better than one hour twice per week—even though the accumulated time is the same. Exercise vigorously to impact your energy system. Do it even if you don’t feel like it. Most of us have resistance to exercise on some level; don’t allow your negative feelings to take control. Get out of your emotions and judgment about what you do or don’t feel like doing and JUST DO IT (the Nike people got it right).  

10. Use school resources

Take advantage of your Physical Education requirement and our FITbear, Fitness Center, and Sports Recreation programs to maintain the habit of feeling better. Your whole world will improve if you do.

Click here for information on the Physical Education Department.