The Science of Learning:Finish the semester strong

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     The homestretch is that part of a racecourse where you come out of the last turn and sprint to the finish line. This week we approach the home stretch of this semester, and students are gearing up for the final flurry and a strong finish.

     The end of the semester is hectic in part because most college professors would rather their students not merely learn information for a quiz or test and then forget it. Final exams, final projects and final papers are assigned to help students review, reflect, synthesize and apply the information they have learned over the semester. This desire to encourage synthesis and retention often results in a large percentage of the final grade being earned in the final few weeks of the semester. This final can make students anxious, but it can also be a source of hope for those who would like to improve their grades. This is an important part of the semester, and so the sixth installation of The Science of Learning offers some advice on how to finish the semester well.

     First, keep your energy levels up by being healthy. Everyone knows that eating well and exercising helps your body function more effectively—and your mind is part of your body. Do your best to carve out daily intervals for exercise.

     Getting your heart rate up for at least 15 minutes is ideal, but recent studies have indicated that even moderately short walks in the sunlight can improve your afternoon energy levels—and therefore increase the effectiveness of your study time.

     Especially in the aftermath of Halloween candy and Thanksgiving goodies, it is easy to abandon yourself to the temptation of sugar rushes. Practice some restraint. Bribe yourself by connecting comfort food to exercise—you can’t have what you want until you do what you should.

     Second, have a medium-term plan. It is a good idea to pull out your calendar today and review upcoming due dates, so you don’t forget to do the prep work for that project that you need to start sooner than you realized. When it comes to writing longish papers, a good rule of thumb is that it will take you two to three times as long as you expect to write it well.

     Plan accordingly and give yourself extra time. One way to do this is to aim to turn projects and papers in a couple of days early. Don’t procrastinate. In most cases, there is no penalty for turning something early, so why not do it now? This is especially true when studying for finals. We know that massive cramming just before a final is not as effective as studying in increments. Schedule specific times—in 30-minute blocks—to study for your finals.

      Finally, focus. If you check your phone 10 times during 30 minutes of studying, you are not studying for 30 minutes. There is a heavy cognitive cost for switching attention from studying to social media, the newsfeed or whatever.

      Find a place to study where you can minimize distractions. Put your phone away and focus on the task at hand. To increase your ability to focus, it can be helpful to cultivate an environment.

     Designate someplace as your study place—and when in that place don’t do anything but academic or intellectual work. This spot should not be in front of the television or your bed. It doesn’t have to be a large space. It could be a corner of your bedroom.

     The point is that when you are there, you are fully focused. If you aren’t used to this sort of focus, it might take some time to create. You can do it in steps. Say to yourself, “when I am here, I am focused on academic work.”

      Commit to a length of time, set a timer and for that short duration, you do nothing else. Then take a break, walk around or check your phone if you would like. Time permitting, go back to studying. This is an approach that combines focused attention on what is called the Pomodoro technique. You can read more about it on the web.

      You have worked hard this semester, and it is now important to finish strong. Remember to be healthy, have a clear study plan, and create a learning environment conducive to focused attention. Happy studying!

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