Acing your finals: Insights from psychology

Finals start on Nov. 5 and students are suggested to look into the psychology of studying to help them ace their exams.  (Steven S./FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS)

Rested you may be after a long awaited Thanksgiving break, but finals loom ahead and there is no escape. It may help to know some of the studying dos and don’ts if you are worried or stressed. For that, we turn to psychology. 

A 2007 study  and survey of 472 undergraduate students at UCLA showed that a majority of college students study whatever is due soonest and an even larger majority quiz themselves to test their mastery of test material. Another study in 2009 of 177 undergraduates at Washington University in St. Louis also showed that self-testing was common, but over two-thirds of students reported that their most-frequently used strategy was rereading their notes or textbook. 285 students across various colleges in 2013 largely knew the benefits of spacing their study instead of cramming, but less than a third actually did so.

Time and again, research on learning has shown that the most effective way to learn and remember test material is to test oneself (instead of rereading) and space studying over many days or weeks (instead of cramming). 

Yet, the narrative can be much more complex. 

In the 2013 survey, students reported that, ideally, they would study for nearly double the amount of days they would under realistic circumstances. When there’s a lot of material to learn and when the test is heavily weighted in the final course grade (i.e. finals), students are more likely to spread out their studying instead of cramming. When the test is multiple-choice and when students have other commitments in the same week, they were more likely to cram. 

Reports show that that the most regularly-used study strategies are underlining or highlighting while reading, self-testing, rereading test material, cramming the night before a test and using flashcards. 

It’s often hard to identify just how important these strategies can be relative to one another, but a 2012 study of 324 participants at Kansas State University attempts to relate study strategy to grade point average (GPA). 

Unlike those with lower GPAs, students with higher GPAs endorsed self-testing, planned their study schedule ahead of time and were less likely to study late at night. Lower GPA students overwhelmingly reported that they study whatever is due the soonest instead of planning out a study schedule and more often study late at night than higher GPA students. Surprisingly, the use of flashcards did not make a difference between the lower and higher GPA groups.

There’s no doubt that grades are important. Much of the stress we feel during these last few weeks of the semester come from deep rooted anxieties about the future and relentless competitive pressure always pushing us to do better. 

Knowing how to study for finals and putting those strategies into practice will undoubtedly result in a better grade, but we might also want to know what effects such motivations have beyond finals week. 

If we thought of grades as rewards for studying, then it’s likely that our motivation for getting good grades could have a negative impact.

A 2015 study showed that 118 undergraduates at Colorado State University were much better at taking it upon themselves to study without an incentive than with an incentive. The experiment divided students into two groups: a reward group and a non-reward group. After taking a test, students offered a reward for answering correctly spent much less time restudying the words for the next test than students in the non-reward group. Given the experiment, motivation to achieve may actually undermine motivation to learn for one’s own self-gratification.

When the goal of education is to foster curiosity and a love of learning, it might be counterintuitive to place grades and achievement as such dominating forces. 

Even so, grades matter a lot, and we’re dealing with a competitive world in which we must get jobs to pay off the loans we’ve accumulated during the last few years. While we can’t immediately change how we’re taught, we can surely ace that final. 

Diler Haji is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at