Get Ready for Finals: Study and Memorization Strategies

No matter how diligent you have been about reviewing your notes, the end of the semester inevitably requires an added layer of review and mastery in order to tackle summative assessments such as exams, projects, and presentations with confidence. The goal of this post is to share some strategies that will help you enhance your study routine during these final, crucial days of the semester.  

Study Strategies: What Doesn’t Work

Let’s begin by identifying some common yet, counterproductive study habits. Cramming and rereading are strategies that many of us relied on in high school and college. Some of you may have even “gotten away with it”–meaning that your resulting exam grades looked fine! 

But can you remember or apply any of the material that you “learned” through cramming today? Probably not! Within a week, 75% of the content we learn through cramming is forgotten. Cramming ultimately undermines your performance on future exams in the same course, future courses in the same field, and future projects in your career.  

The other problem with cramming is that it encourages other problematic study strategies. When operating under a time crunch, most of us resort to rereading our notes and other course materials–hoping that this will somehow burn the information into our memories! Ultimately, however, this kind of passive repetition is not an effective memorization or learning strategy. 

To truly absorb, understand, and retain information, you need three types of practice: distributed practice, retrieval practice, and elaborative practice. As with playing a sport or instrument, your brain needs to practice before you ask it to perform under pressure. That’s where these three strategies come in. They allow you to learn in a deeper, more meaningful fashion. Students who use these strategies not only retain information longer, they are better able to apply their knowledge to new, unfamiliar problems.

Distributed Practice

Rather than cramming all of your review in the night before an exam, it’s important to break your studying into smaller chunks and space these shorter study sessions out over several days. If you can do a little bit of review for each of your courses each day, you’ll be in a much stronger position. Furthermore, the breaks and sleep you get between these shorter, distributed study sessions will allow your mind to organize and consolidate the information it has learned. 

A helpful way to structure your distributed study sessions is the Pomodoro Technique. It encourages you to work in short, intense bursts by selecting a goal and setting a timer for 25 minutes. Next, eliminate all distractions, then work toward your goal until the timer goes off. When your time is up, take a five minute break to stretch or brew a mug of tea, then repeat the cycle three more times before taking a longer, 15-30 minute break. As a graduate student, you may want to experiment with the length of your Pomodoro sessions–some tasks may be suited to 20 minute sessions, while other tasks may work better as 45 minute sessions. The key is to monitor your personal attention span and to break longer tasks into multiple Pomodoro sessions when necessary. 

Retrieval Practice 

The second type of practice that’s essential for exam preparation is Retrieval Practice. You wouldn’t train for a marathon by walking; you’d actually need to practice running! Similarly, when preparing for any kind of exam, you need to perform the activity that you’ll be doing on exam day—namely, asking your brain to retrieve information on demand! 

The good news is that there are many creative ways to practice retrieval! Paper or digital flashcards are probably the most familiar example. To make the most of your flashcards, maintain a fairly large deck of flashcards and avoid passively reading through the cards. Instead, pause to test your memory before checking the answer. Then, leave each card in your deck until you have successfully recalled it multiple times; once or twice is not enough! 

Study groups can also provide valuable opportunities for retrieval practice. You can quiz each other verbally or via your preferred texting platform. You can also practice teaching each other challenging concepts and then offering each other corrective feedback. Put your memory to the test by explaining how or why the other person’s explanation was right or wrong. You and your study partner may have picked up on different nuances or have different underlying assumptions. Exploring these differences to find a common solution or understanding will enhance the learning process for both of you! This kind of collaborative thinking is a terrific way to calibrate what you know and make sure you have truly mastered the material. It also prepares you for the kinds of conversations that you will have throughout your professional careers. 

Whichever methods you choose, retrieval practice does take a bit more creativity than passively rereading your notes. But the benefits are numerous, especially if you space out your retrieval practice.

Elaborative Practice

The third and final type of practice is elaboration, which requires giving meaning to new information that you are learning. This approach makes storage of information into your long-term memory more efficient and simplifies retrieval by building connections between new information and your existing, prior knowledge. 

One way to give meaning to new information is to go beyond simple, verbatim retrieval. If you’re using flashcards as a study tool, be sure to think beyond the written definition. Take the opportunity to ask yourself “how,” “why,” and “what if” questions about the concepts or theories you are studying. Can you provide a real-world example or explain why each concept is important? This approach will encourage you to reach for the higher levels of learning represented in Bloom’s Taxonomy–application, analysis, evaluation, and creation. 

Another elaborative approach is finding connections within the material you are studying. As you review, ask yourself how different concepts relate to each other and how they contribute to the course or your discipline as a whole. This line of thinking may inspire you to create an outline, a concept map, or another type of study guide to help you chunk ideas into larger, meaningful units. This kind of structured, relational knowledge is easier to retrieve than separate, seemingly unrelated terms and concepts.

A final approach to elaboration is reflecting on how the information you are learning relates to your personal or professional life. This kind of self-referencing helps connect new information to your past experiences, current projects, and future goals. Again, by linking new information to familiar ideas, you are more likely to retain the information long term. 

Conclusion 

Distributed practice, retrieval practice, and elaborative practice require a little time and creativity. However, they pay off in reduced stress as well as improved recall and more sophisticated thinking on exam day. 

As the fall semester comes to a close, take stock of the learning strategies that have worked well for you this semester as well as the strategies you would like to introduce or perfect next semester. To support your continued growth as a learner, be on the lookout for the Educational Resource Center’s spring workshops, including the Master’s Lunch & Learn series.

Sarah Garibova, Ph.D.
Assistant Director for Outreach
Educational Resource Center
Boston University 

Recommended Reading 

Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L, & McDaniel, M.A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Available as an ebook through BU Libraries and JSTOR. 

Carey, B. (2015) How we learn: The surprising truth about when, where, and why it happens

Doyle, T. & Zakrajsek, T.D. (2013) The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony With Your Brain. Available as an ebook through BU Libraries. 

McGuire, S. & McGuire, S. (2018). Teach yourself how to learn: Strategies you can use to ace any course at any level