Put the fun back in finals


(Illustration by Abby Katz | Staff Illustrator)

“You can do this Tiana — you always make it through in the end,” Tiana Han says resolutely to herself.

Han, a Pitt junior and biology major, lights a candle, settles into the desk in her apartment and gets down to business. She will only be there for a few hours at a time, though, taking breaks to hit the gym and going to bed earlier than normal.

Meanwhile, a group of girls sit around a table on the second floor of Hillman Library peppered with open laptops, half-eaten salads from Hello Bistro and a frequently dipped-into “party sized” bag of peanut M&M’s.

This gathering isn’t party-like — the girls look exhausted. One gazes worriedly at her laptop screen with both hands on her head as if to hold in all the information she’s attempting to funnel in there. It’s Friday evening, but you’d never guess from the paneling of coldly lit sheets of light bathing the floor in an eternal, artificial daytime.

As finals week begins, those open tables in Hillman will be fewer and farther between as students flock to the cement-gray building and voluntarily confine themselves to the annoyingly noisy ground floor, or a depressingly utilitarian desk on upper levels. But feeling downtrodden by the last week of the semester isn’t the approach students should take this year.

“I just roll up into fetal position and cry,” Joseph Griffith said of his method for preparing for finals.

Although Griffith, a Pitt junior and physics, astronomy and mathematics major is partly joking, this kind of mindset pervades university culture and might be making this time of the year significantly more painful for students than it needs to be.

Before I go on, I must make one thing vitally clear — finals are important. We are college students, paying large amounts of money to get an education and should by no means undermine the importance of doing our best in school. And if that’s true, students should be grateful for the opportunity to show how much they’ve learned this semester — not dread the idea of preparing for it.

Han has reclaimed finals week for herself, saying other students should consider doing the same.

Instead of toiling away in front of books and lit laptop screens as night turns to morning, students should prioritize sleep, now more than ever. It could even help your GPA, according to a 2001 study in the College Student Journal. Students with a healthy sleep schedule, getting seven to eight hours of sleep per night, appeared to have better studying habits, averaging a 3.01. Those getting fewer than six hours averaged a GPA of 2.74. You may feel like a quitter leaving the library before midnight, but it’d probably be to your advantage.

Han sets an earlier than normal bedtime for finals week, and sourly recalls the night she spent studying at the library until 2:30 a.m. before a biology final as a process she “would 10/10 not recommend.”

“It’s just a high-stress environment,” Han says of Hillman. “It’s loud and distracting, and I feel like I get nothing done there.”

Some say a little stress is good — motivating, even. A 2013 study from the University of California, Berkeley, found that rats subjected to acute, short-term stress conditions actually saw an increase in the proliferation of new neurons in the brain’s memory centers.

And while a strategy seeking to replicate these results certainly might work for some students, it can be easy to let the stress become overwhelming. A 2014 study from UC Berkeley showed that chronic, prolonged stress can actually impair memory, and may even lead to the development of mental illnesses like anxiety and depression — consequences clearly detrimental to positive testing performance.

Of course, some students thrive in noisier environments. But for those who would rather not run the rat race in the library, there are plenty of other places to prepare for the final week of the semester. Schenley Park is a great place to start, for instance.

Exercising increases endorphin levels, which reduces stress, makes you happier and helps you sleep. Accomplishing a run gives you the satisfaction of doing something from start to finish, which is hard to get from hours of studying.

Healthy habits are key to making the most of finals week, so if the thought of going for a run causes you more stress than doing another chapter, take heart — you don’t have to go any further than your own kitchen.

If you’re lucky enough to have a kitchen of your own, take advantage of it. Firing up the oven is one of the best forms of stress relief — you can be confident you’ll be proud of what you make, a fate not guaranteed from a test result. Even if you burn the chicken, you still made the chicken. It’s a tangible way to see that you’ve accomplished something, unlike the hours you spend pouring information into your brain, hoping it’s still there when your pencil hits the paper on the exam this week.

Since classes aren’t in session during this last week, it’s actually more feasible to do activities like exercising or cooking than it is during the regular semester when classes and clubs limit free time during the day.

Some students may see this as an opportunity to have uninterrupted study time for days on end — but that might be one of the worst ideas possible. Not only can overworking the brain contribute to a decline in memory and thinking skills, it also turns the week into a dreadful thing it really doesn’t have to be.

Maybe the first step is taking a deep breath and realizing that there is time. There’s time for both an Organic Chemistry practice test and time for a 20 minute walk. Time to prepare the group project and time to bake chocolate chip cookies at the end of the day, too.

Finals do not have to be the backbreaking affair we’ve dressed them up to be — maybe if we decided to look at the week under a different light, we’d see that.

Sarah primarily writes about social issues and Pittsburgh life for The Pitt News. Write to Sarah at [email protected].