4 Mistakes that Students Commonly Make During Finals Week

I recently did a collaboration video with Jay from Med School Insiders. In this video, we discuss how students can avoid 4 common mistakes that occur during finals week. You can read the article version of his video below. Thanks Jay! 

With finals week quickly approaching, it is becoming more and more critical to spend your time wisely. In the rush and stress of finals, we often make the same mistakes. If you have not already, be sure to check out my prior video and post on 6 tips for Finals Week where I go over good study habits and strategies to maximize your score on test day. In this post, we will instead focus on common mistakes to avoid leading up to and during Finals.

01 | Mistake: Passive Learning

The first mistake I see far too often is using Passive Learning rather than Active Learning  I have gone over the differences in active versus passive learning in earlier posts.The main takeaway is this: during finals week, your time is extremely limited, so when you study, be sure to study effectively and efficiently. It’s too easy for us sit down and decide to “study” without a clear goal or purpose in mind. What this often leads to is mindless passive studying, which is only a fraction as effective as active studying. So rather than sitting at your desk at 9AM and telling yourself you will study for the next 4 hours, instead break down the studying you wish to accomplish into achievable tasks or goals. Examples would be completing Practice Test #4, finishing 200 Anki cards, or using the Feynman technique to teach a complex concept to a classmate during a small group study session. Rather than passively reading notes or listening to audio recordings, instead make studying an active process with recall tasks like flash cards, doing practice problems, explaining or teaching concepts to others, quizzing your friends, or creating condensed notes. You will retain more information in a shorter period of time and ultimately get a better grade.

02 | Mistake: Disorganization

The next mistake is being disorganized. This closely ties in with the first mistake. I don’t mean tidy up your room and color code your class notes. The organization I’m referring to is with regards to your study schedule. Sometimes you have multiple finals in a single day, or a final and a paper due the same day. If you casually approach studying one subject at a time, you’re gonna to have a bad time. Because of the conflicting nature of exam dates and assignments, it is paramount to create a schedule to plan out how you will allocate your time for each exam as the date approaches.

I would take a piece of paper and list out the days leading up to each exam. I would then divide days based on subject and task. For example, Monday morning may read “condense chapter 3 through 5 notes and complete practice test #2 under Chemistry, and Monday afternoon may read “Complete 200 Anki cards on Central Nervous System Anatomy and go over complex concepts A, B, and C with study group under my Neuroanatomy course”.

Don’t forget to have blocks of time for errands, mental breaks, and catch up blocks for when you fall off track, which will likely happen. There are certain things you have to do every day – like shower, eat, exercise, etc. – use these moments as breaks from studying. Other important things to remember include things like taking 20 seconds every 20 minutes to look at something in the distance to relax the ciliary muscles in your eyes and reduce eye strain. One of my favorites is to stay hydrated by keeping a water bottle close by which has dual purpose: staying hydrated has a slew of benefits, but it also forces you to get up and move when you need to use the restroom.

03 | Mistake: Procrastination

The third mistake is something most of us are far too familiar with: procrastination. This again ties in with the previous point on staying organized. If you approach your studying without a plan, without a proper study schedule and organized structure, it’s easy to push off studying until later. Creating a schedule for the days leading up to the exam helps you pace yourself and plan out a method of attack. Often times we don’t realize how much we have to study until we actually write it all down on a schedule.

Creating a schedule will be a huge step in the right direction if you have issues with procrastination. There are other tips and tricks you can use as well (check out the post specifically on how to beat procrastination and another on how to use the Pomodoro technique – which is my favorite technique for overcoming procrastination and getting a great deal of things done in little time).

04 | Mistake: Sleep Deprivation

The fourth mistake is limiting your sleep. If you recall from the first video I created on Final Exams, all-nighters are rarely ever going to do you any favors. In short, all nighters make you sluggish during the test and rob you of the benefits of REM sleep. I have spoken about sleep stages and the importance of memory consolidation in this post.

While most of us are not pulling all-nighters regularly, most of us ARE depriving ourselves of sleep on a nightly basis. I would argue that leading up to and during finals week there are even fewer reasons that you should be restricting your sleep. Yes you heard that right. Leading up to finals, you should be getting more sleep, not less. Class tasks and assignments are on the decline and during finals week there are generally no classes to attend.

If you are sleep deprived leading up to Finals Week, I can point to one of two things that are  the likely culprits: First, you’re not using active learning when you study, because active learning is exhausting. It’s extremely challenging to go the whole day using active learning, especially when you start getting tired later in the day. Second, you are not effectively using a schedule to organize your study days and plan of attack. With proper scheduling, you should be able to accomplish a great deal of studying every day while still maintaining enough time for errands and sleep. In short, you’re not getting enough sleep because you are not being efficient with your studying or your time. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Efficiency is king. Master efficiency and everything else will fall into place. Remember, to consolidate facts into our long term memory and make them stick in the brain we need deep sleep and REM sleep. Robbing yourself of sleep is therefore robbing yourself of the hard work you put in while studying. If you study and get a good night’s rest, you will remember more of what you studied than if you study and get less sleep.

There have been some fascinating studies comparing sleep deprivation to alcohol intoxication. In this study, the researchers demosntrated the after 17-19 hours without sleep, performance on some tests aas equivalent or worse than a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05%. Response speeds and accuracy were significantly poorer than at this level of alcohol. After longer periods without sleep, performance dropped to the equivalent of a BAC of 0.1%. Another study came to similar conclusions. The scientists demonstrated that moderate levels of fatigue impair performance to an extent equivalent or greater than is currently acceptable for alcohol intoxication.

If you still insist on depriving yourself of sleep, check out my post on Sleeping Smarter, which will help you get higher quality sleep, even when you aren’t getting the recommended 7-9 hours.

Again, I'd like to thank Jay for allowing me to be a guest on his YouTube channel. Check out Jay's YouTube channel and blog for more studying tips!