3 Research-Backed Study Strategies for Finals

Final exams are right around the corner, starting as soon as next week for many of us. No matter who you are, it’s a stressful time. This is doubly true for those of us in STEM, where success on our exams hinges on truly understanding and applying complex concepts, processes and formulas. Am I ready? How can I master so much material in such a short period of time? 

Luckily, countless pages of research have been published on the best ways to study, giving us insight into the optimal strategies, techniques and conditions for learning – and retaining – the material we need to know for finals. Here are three research-based strategies that you can use right now to study for your exams, as well as tips on how to apply them.

Spaced Repetition

Often, when we’re cramming for exams, we find ourselves forgetting information almost as soon as we learn it. The model for this phenomenon is known as the “forgetting curve,” a graph that illustrates the way we gradually forget information over time if no effort is made to retain it.

Conversely, it stands to reason that with repetition comes retention, and neuroscience tells us why: When we’re repeatedly exposed to information after learning it for the first time, we potentiate neural connections that allow us to remember it more effectively. But when you’re studying for an exam – or, more likely, multiple exams – you can’t constantly repeat every single piece of information you need to know. There’s just too much to learn. So what’s the most effective and efficient way to form durable memories and retain newly learned information?

That’s where the strategy of spaced repetition comes in. Research has shown that the most powerful way to create memory-forming neural connections is by re-exposing ourselves to the information we’re trying to remember just before we forget it. With spaced repetition, we can take advantage of this by exposing ourselves to information at increasing intervals between each repetition, allowing us to encode information into our long-term memories in the most time-efficient way possible. This is why long hours of cramming are so much less effective than multiple shorter study sessions over two weeks or so – when we repeatedly expose ourselves to information, we’re far more likely to remember it when it counts.

A graph of the forgetting curve in red, versus memory retention when employing spaced repetition in green.

In practice, you can use spaced repetition to optimize your studying in a number of ways. You can manually create a study plan where you review older lectures, video lessons and concepts alongside more recent lectures in increasing time intervals. There are also study tools, such as Anki, that use spaced repetition by testing you on information with flashcards and automatically scheduling the cards based on the difficulty of recall for each one.

One thing to note: When utilizing spaced repetition, make sure you’re not just reading your notes or textbooks, but rather using more effective study techniques. Which brings us to our next research-backed study strategy…

Active Recall

Active recall is a simple concept that can have a profound impact on your ability to learn information and study for exams. Essentially, active recall is the act of searching your memory for information – actively recalling something rather than passively consuming the information. While it sounds fairly basic, active recall can be more difficult in practice: It’s always easier to sit back and listen to something or read your notes than it is to actively work through the information you’ve learned. However, once you get the hang of active recall study techniques, you’ll be amazed at the results.

Active recall is related to the “testing effect,” which holds that being tested on information is far more effective in helping you learn that information than just rereading it or hearing it again. The key lies in the difference between recall and recognition: When you re-read your notes or watch a lecture again, you recognize something you’ve learned – essentially, acknowledging that “oh yeah, I learned that.” When you recall something on command, on the other hand, you’re actively wracking your brain to come up with the information you’ve learned and apply it.

In practice, there are a number of ways to study using active recall. Flashcards are a great option, especially when you don’t know the solution: You’re faced with a question, and you have to work through the information you know to produce an answer. Learning with step-by-step videos, like the textbook video solutions on Numerade, is another excellent way to use active recall to your advantage. When you’re watching an educator work through the process of solving a problem, work through the steps with them, even pausing the video if needed. In addition, once the video has taught you a concept, method or formula, you should then work on solving different variations of that problem using the information you’ve learned. Finally, another tried and true active recall method is to answer practice exams and questions.

Teaching Others

Our last proven strategy for effective studying is teaching others. This method is closely related to active recall, and it’s hands-down one of the best ways to learn. If you’ve got a patient friend, ask if you can teach them about what you’re studying. When you teach another about information and concepts you’ve learned, you’re actively recalling, processing and synthesizing that information to make it understandable to others. If your friends can ask questions and pose hypotheticals for you to answer, even better – it will encourage you to apply your knowledge to new situations and think outside the box. 

Don’t have a study partner? Teaching to an imaginary friend is just as effective, and we promise we won’t think you’re weird. Just make sure your imaginary friend is a beginner in whatever subject you’re studying – essentially, the learning benefits arise from the act of processing and reworking the information you’ve learned and then communicating it to someone else who is unfamiliar with the concepts.

Teaching others often employs a type of active recall called elaboration, which refers to explaining and elaborating on the things you’re studying. Another way to engage in elaboration as a study strategy involves synthesizing, comparing or contrasting multiple different but related ideas and concepts. If you don’t have someone to teach, you can also pose questions to yourself that force you to reckon with the core principles and foundations underlying a concept or idea – basically, explaining why something works the way it does. Finally, when elaborating on an idea, you can relate it to experiences and memories in your own life: Anchoring new material to things you already know will help with recall in the future.

So there you have it: Three evidence-based strategies to help you study for finals. And of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t remind you that studying and following along with step-by-step video lessons – such as those on Numerade, ahem – is proven to be one of the most effective ways to learn STEM. Learn more about signing up for a free 7-day trial of Numerade here, and good luck with your finals – you got this!