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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
For many students, the Learn from Anywhere (LfA) model has created greater flexibility in their schedules. Unfortunately, as you make your way through the semester, deadlines may start to multiply, and school-life balance may seem elusive. This is where adding greater structure to your schedule and trying out some new techniques can help you stay on track academically while maintaining a healthy, balanced lifestyle.
Look Ahead, Plan Backwards
Throughout the semester, you will likely be navigating multiple competing deadlines for your courses. It’s important to map out those key dates ahead of time so that you can distribute the workload and avoid pulling all-nighters to finish projects at the last minute.
The calendar below is an excerpt from a Semester at a Glance calendar. At the beginning of each semester, it’s helpful to map out all of your exam dates, project and paper deadlines, and any personal or family commitments that might make certain weeks feel busier than others. Filling out a Semester at a Glance calendar this week, with all of your remaining deadlines, will help you develop a realistic plan for completing your projects and exam preparations on time. You can download a sample calendar here.
For each deadline on your Semester at a Glance, you can implement Reverse Planning. Break each assignment down into smaller tasks, and plan backwards, from the due date to the present, estimating how much time each task will take as you go. Not only does Reverse Planning reduce the time pressure of preparing for exams and presentations, it also improves focus, motivation, and performance as you work toward milestones in your degree program and professional development.
Beef up Your Weekly Calendar
Another strategy that can help you stay on track during these final weeks of the semester is revisiting your weekly calendar. At the beginning of the semester, most graduate students enter their class schedule, work hours (if they have a job), and recurring appointments into their weekly calendars. As the semester progresses though, many students struggle to balance the commitments that aren’t included on their weekly calendars: sleep, meals, exercise, study time, and free time. These are things we all recognize are essential but we assume will magically fit into the white space on our calendars. The trouble is, as the semester ramps up and deadlines begin to loom, our best intentions for maintaining a healthy, balanced lifestyle often falter. In the moment, we often make poor time management decisions. For example, when you sit down to study, too much white space on your calendar can lull you into procrastinating. What we need is a system that allows us to quickly visualize exactly how much time we have available to work on the tasks we need to complete.
One solution is to take a more comprehensive approach to your weekly calendar, transforming it into a 24 Hour Time Grid that reflects both your external commitments and your commitments to yourself. You can create your 24 Hour Time Grid using any weekly calendaring platform that works for you, e.g. Google Calendar, iCal, or a paper planner.
As you enter your class schedule, you’ll want to use color coding to indicate which classes are meeting in person and which are meeting remotely. If you are enrolled in a course with asynchronous components such as pre-recorded lectures, you’ll also want to schedule a consistent time each week to access these course materials and take notes on them.
Commit to Balance
After you’ve entered your schedule of classes, work, and recurring appointments, the next step is to schedule time for your commitments to yourself. Start by blocking off 7-8 hours of sleep a night. There are two excellent reasons to schedule your sleep! First, the goal of a 24 Hour Time Grid is to help you achieve an accurate understanding of how many hours you have available for study time. If you leave sleep time open, it is tempting to glance at your calendar during the day and reassure yourself that you have plenty of time to finish your work. Later in the day, it’s tempting to cut into valuable sleep time by staying up later. A second reason to schedule your sleep is that sleep deprivation negatively impacts cognitive function. When you’re sleep deprived, it becomes harder to concentrate on your work and harder to remember material that you’re learning. Conversely, studies show that good sleep leads to better problem-solving and creativity. Most importantly, sleep allows your brain to organize and consolidate the information it has learned during the day. So, sleep isn’t optional! It’s essential, and thus, it deserves to be represented in your weekly calendar.
After sleep, be sure to block off time for three meals a day and exercise at least three times per week. Wellbeing is extremely important, yet is often one of the first things we sacrifice when we start to feel “too busy” during the semester. Good nutrition fuels not just your body, but also your brain. And researchers have found that exercise doesn’t just benefit your physical health! It also boosts your creativity and restores your ability to focus.
Schedule Your Study Hours
At this stage, the remaining “white space”on your calendar reflects the true amount of time you have available each week for either study time or free time. It’s important to strike a balance between study and free time so that your mind has opportunities to decompress.
As you schedule your study time, keep in mind that, for every credit hour you are registered for, it is best to block out two hours of study time each week. For a 16 credit course load, this means reserving 30-32 hours of study time per week. There may be weeks where your assignment load is lighter, so you can use the excess for leisure time. But, particularly during the busy final weeks of the semester, you will thank yourself for guarding those 32 hours each week!
Make the Most of Your Study Time
As you study, it’s best to work in short, intense bursts using the Pomodoro Technique. To implement the technique, first, set a specific goal you can achieve in 25 minutes. This may mean breaking a larger assignment into smaller tasks, which you will complete over several Pomodoro sessions. Next, before you begin working, eliminate all distractions and set a timer for 25 minutes. A helpful timer that helps you visualize your productivity and combat digital distraction is the Forest app. While your timer runs, focus exclusively on your chosen task. Once the timer goes off, take a five minute break to reward yourself. Then set a new goal and repeat the Pomodoro cycle three more times before taking a longer, 15-30 minute break.
The breaks that are built into the Pomodoro Technique may seem like they are just for fun, but, much like sleep, they are actually essential to the learning process. Professor Barbara Oakley, author of A Mind for Numbers, argues that we have two different modes of thinking: focused mode and diffuse mode. Focused mode is what most of us picture when we think of studying. Focused mode means concentrating intently on material that we are trying to learn or memorize. Diffuse mode, on the other hand, is when we aren’t focused on anything in particular. In the diffuse mode, we start to see the big picture and make connections. The diffuse mode explains why some of our biggest “Aha!” moments come to us when we are cooking dinner or folding laundry.
Optimal learning occurs when we allow our minds to go back and forth between these two modes of thinking. This is why the Pomodoro Technique is such a powerful learning tool.
In combination, the Semester at a Glance, Reverse Planning, the 24 Hour Time Grid, and the Pomodoro Technique can help you maintain focus, motivation, and a sense of balance during the busy final weeks of the semester. If you have any questions about integrating these new strategies into your routine, please reach out to BU’s Educational Resource Center. Our staff offer workshops on time management, study strategies, and more. We also offer one-on-one Academic Skills Advising appointments where you can meet with a professional staff member to develop a personalized plan for academic success.
Sarah Garibova, Ph.D.
Assistant Director for Outreach
Educational Resource Center
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