Finals: A How-To Guide


Eli Savage | Staff Illustrator

By Jon Moss, Senior Staff Writer

With finals bearing down on Pitt’s campus, some students are worried about how to best prepare for the onslaught of school work.

As students prepare to enter finals week, The Pitt News sat down with mental and physical health experts to learn what students can do to help manage stress and succeed on the last exams of the semester.

With a semester full of activities both on and off campus, some students are tempted to delay studying until the end of the term and cram for the several nights leading up to an exam.

Christian Schunn, a learning sciences and policy professor in Pitt’s School of Education, said cramming significantly degrades students’ mental forgetting function — the amount of information retained several hours after studying.

“There is a very steep loss function,” Schunn said. “If you’re only going to study one time just before [the exam], the forgetting function is a lot worse than if you spread it out and studied multiple times spread out over time.”

But Schunn said there are ways to more effectively study large volumes of information in short periods of time, such as focusing on larger themes rather than smaller details.

“The most important thing is you make it be about meaning,” Schunn said. “Moving away from just memorize-beat-it-in to ‘how is it organized, why is that true?’ ways of thinking about it, makes the memory. It gets it in easier, and leaves it in for longer. And puts it in a place where you can find it later.”

As stress begins to ramp up during finals week, maintaining a stable emotional headspace can also be a major contributor to success on exams.

Dr. Lauren Bylsma, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at Pitt, said it is important for students to create a personalized sleep, study and relaxation schedule for finals week — and then stick to it.

“During the finals period, sometimes one thing students tend to do is kind of get off-track with their schedules. They tend to maybe stay up late studying,” Bylsma said. “One thing I’d recommend is try to keep sleep-wake schedules as consistent as possible, and try not to do those overnights studying.”

To avoid the last-minute time crunch of finals, Bylsma said students should formulate their schedules early in the year.

“Trying to plan at the beginning of the semester, having a regular study plan for times you’re going to do your homework or your studying, and trying to keep a consistent schedule each week,” Bylsma said. “And then making sure you always have some time for relaxation or exercise or fun, as well.”

According to Hallie Stotsky, a registered yoga teacher and adviser for Student Health Service’s Stress Free Zone, it is just as important to take time to off to relax and do activities that promote mental and emotional stability, as it is to study during the stress of finals week.

Located on the third floor of the William Pitt Union, the Stress Free Zone is a space where students can learn and utilize stress reduction skills such as mindfulness meditation.

“We offer different relaxation stations that help students feel physically relaxed,” Stotsky said in an email. “We pair each station with a Mindfulness Meditation that helps students learn breathing techniques to mentally relax.”

She said every student is different, and should do whatever mindful activity works best for them within the constraints of their busy schedules.

“Any form of exercise is great and beneficial during a stressful time — and the best one will be unique to each student,” Stotsky said. “Our stations can run anywhere from 10 minutes to about a half hour, so it’s not a big time commitment for a big benefit.”

Schunn also said learning is a full-body activity, requiring both mental and physical coordination.

“It’s amazing how many calories just thinking hard consumes,” Schunn said. “Sitting there and thinking a lot actually uses a lot of energy, so you need to trick your body into pumping energy through the whole system.”

For students who cannot attend sessions in person, the zone posts audio files online for students to use on their own schedules.

But sometimes, the stress of finals may lead students to try other, less holistic methods to push through studying difficulties.

One option is “shotgunning” energy drinks such as Red Bull, which is marketed heavily toward students and younger demographics. Jonathan Nigra, a senior environmental studies major, shotgunned a Red Bull last year when trying to complete an environmental law and policy paper.

“I had to finish a paper … it was about six in the morning, and I hadn’t slept, and the coffee had stopped working,” Nigra said. “I figured it would be fun to do something dumb.”

Nigra mentioned that technique is also important while shotgunning a drink.

“You flip the can over so that the opening is facing down, and you take a key and punch a hole … where there’s a little air pocket,” Nigra said. “You put that hole over your mouth, and you open the tab, and you can drink the whole thing. It’s real efficient.”

When asked whether he would recommend other students shotgun Red Bull or other energy drinks, Nigra responded with a simple guideline.

“Do whatever feels right,” Nigra said.

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