OMG Finals: Three Easy Ways to Improve Studying and Get the Grades You Want.

by Mike Zhark

studying overloadWith exams coming up for many post-secondary institutions, Kingpin Social invited me to share some ideas that have helped me excel in the academic realm.

Let me start off by saying I used to hate studying. Especially for finals. I would pull 12-16 hour study days every day for the week or two before and during finals. But what sucked the most was when I realized that the studying I was doing could have been so much less painful and yielded much better results.

I’m not writing to completely change your studying style. My main purpose in writing this article is to bring up ideas that everyone can apply to their unique study styles. However, if you came here looking for study models, I threw some links at the bottom of the page.

Goal-Setting

For years, I had to push my nose to the paper to get any studying done. I would find myself getting bored when I knew I had to study for the test coming up (often the next morning). This would result in me giving up studying multiple times in one night, struggling to suppress both my school-related apathy and the high entertainment value of everything around me.

Setting (your own) goals gives you a general sense of direction and motivation to fall back upon.

It is very difficult to guide behaviours without positive (meaning present, not necessarily happy) motivation. Think of a ship without a compass, map, or GPS. For most people, departing for a trip across the ocean without these tools for guidance would result in a bad time. As well, having a self-imposed goal allows for the activation of a satisfaction-motivation feedback loop. The major benefit of this is that motivation is perpetually maintained and may even grow as you get closer to and achieve your goals.

Task: Set up short and long-term goals.

Being able to set, reset, and maintain goals allows you to continue achieving, and avoid post-goal apathy. If the previous boat metaphor holds, goal modification and implementation in short and long-term scenarios is similar to being able to check your compass more than once on your journey. You wouldn’t check a compass or GPS once at the beginning of your voyage and than just leave it, so why would you only set one-dimensional goals? You wouldn’t.

Do a Little Bit at a Time

Before I start on this point, I want to emphasize there is actually a point to studying over a period of time. All of my life I’ve heard teachers, professors, and mentors repeat this over and over ad infinitum: doing a little bit at a time makes it so much easier when the test comes around. I guess I could see where they were coming from too. Great minds, elite athletes, amazing musicians, talented artists, etc all apply themselves to their craft day in and day out. Just as Michael Jordan’s training regime didn’t only consist of 8-20 hours of investment on the hardwood right before the NBA championship finals, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to study 8-20 hours directly before a big test. I understood this near the end of my high school years, but it didn’t have any relevance with me until my third year in University. Hopefully, you can learn from my mistakes and understand the importance of this one principle: Doing a little bit of studying or work every day is significantly better in the long-run.

studyingArguably the best thing about doing a little bit of studying or work everyday is that the retention rate is higher, meaning less hours are needed overall for a higher grade. Work smart not hard right? There are a ton of highly respected studies regarding the benefits of studying over a period of time (1 hour per day) (Donovan and Radosevich, 1999), showing roughly 67% increase in retention rate OR, by extension, 67% decrease in time for the same result. Lets do some math.

Average Option:

An average (B-, 70%) student may study 15-20 hours for a typical final. Typical students leave the studying to be done in large chunks within 3-4 days before the final.

16 hours/4 days = 4 hours per day per final

A typical student will study for 4 hours per day, for 4 days, chalking up to a 16 hour block of study time.

70% (Final Grade)/ 16 Hours (Time of Study) = 4.375 % (Percentage of Test per Hour of Study)

Same-Hour Distributed Option:

Let’s use the same 15-20 hours of preparation for an exam, EXCEPT we’ll use the 67% increase in retention above. For the sake of the equation, an 67% increase in retention will be translated to an 67% increase in effective hours.

You want to get 100%? Let’s use the typical study method based on typical test results and see how much time it would take.

100% (Final Grade) / 4.375% (Percentage Per Hour) = 22.86 (Hours of Study)

That means it would take you 22.86 hours with the typical study methods to get 100% on your next test. That’s fun. Here’s an easy way to increase the grade you get and decrease the time you spend.

Same-Grade Option:

Let’s go backwards from the 16 hours over 4 days for 70% on a final, and see how much more time we have if we just do an hour every day. We will assume that a 67% increase in retention will be translated to a 67% increase in effective hours (vide supra).

4.375% (Percentage Per Hour)  x 1.67 (Increased Retention Rate) = 7.31% (Increased Percentage Per Hour)

That means if you divide your study time into hour long segments over 16 days instead of cramming in 4 hours per day, each hour that you study will result in a 7.31% grade, instead of a 4.375% grade. Talk about effective use of your time! Alright. You want to get a 70%? This is how it would work:

70% (Final Grade)/ 7.31 % (Percentage Per Hour) = 9.58 (Hours of Study)

With the new learning method, you’ll have to study 6 LESS hours to get the SAME grade! Studying an hour a day is alot easier than studying 4 hours for 4 days too; alot less mentally draining. The key is to set aside some time, the same time each day, so that you actually get your studying done.

What about if you wanted to get 100%?

100% (Final Grade) / 7.31% (Percentage Per Hour) = 13.68 (Hours of Study)

On paper that means by spending 14 days studying, an hour per day, you’re going to get a higher grade than if you study 4 hours per day for 4 days straight. Of course changing variables come into play with these equations; distractions, level of focus, etc.

See! It makes very little sense to cram when you have the option of distributed practice. It doesn’t even make sense if trying to slack as best as possible. So don’t do it.

Eat and Sleep

ROCKSTAR! COFFEE! TIMS! STARBUCKS! VENTI ORANGE MOCHA FRAPPUCINOS! SUGARCANDAYBAKEDGOODS!!!! NOSLEEPLOTSOFSTUDYMAKESGOODGRADESAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

Eating and sleeping are two huge factors that you can easily make work for getting a higher grade in school.

Did you know that your brain consumes roughly 25% (Dullo and Jacquet, 1998) of your entire body’s energy? Machines need electricity, cars need gas, and your brain needs glucose. While it wouldn’t be reasonable to do a 180 with studying lifestyle and expect you to become a health nut overnight, you should be aware of what in your body has a direct and profound effect on how effective you are able to study. Different foods provide different levels of energy to your body over different periods of time, with high-protein foods being great before a big day of studying. I’m not going to get into math again, but what if I suggested that your “hours” studying were only 50% as effective as regular hours you put in? Could you imagine your 12 hour awesome study day actually only be as effective as 6 hours of studying with food? Isn’t time something you have a lot of during finals? Oh wait.

Sleep is another huge factor that people often overlook when studying. The hippocampus is a major brain area associated with the formation of new memories. It works a lot like RAM in your computer. Memories (data) are stored in your hippocampus (RAM), and than transferred to permanent memory (hard drive) when you sleep. To that end, an increase in sleep (specifically, REM sleep) has been shown to increase the transfer of information to permanent storage. There is overwhelming evidence showing the role of sleep on hippocampal action and memory, and I’ve included a few links below for the science-inclined. It should be noted though, that while sleep is important, cramming all night is significantly better than relying on what you “learned” in class and doing nothing.

The Next Level

You can increase retention rates and how much you remember by studying when you wake up.

The hippocampus (RAM) is “cleared” and best utilized after periods of sleep (Buzsaki, 1990). Although lifestyle often does not support studying when you just wake up (who REALLY wakes up at 6 am to study before classes?), it is much easier for your brain to process and remember information when it is the first thing to enter that RAM storage. While I am a big believer in integrating good habits into lifestyle for perpetual benefits, I think that many people could probably pull their sleep back 2-3 hours and get up that extra 2-3 hours earlier than they usually would. I’ve been experimenting with this one for a long time, and the two biggest benefits I’ve seen are, one, my nights are free to chill, and two, it’s so much easier to study when it’s not at the end of a long day of work, driving through traffic, etc.

I hope everyone reading this can find the value I have found within these ideas, and that it takes your studying to more effective levels. If you want to talk about these ideas in more depth, drop a comment below or hit me up on Facebook. I love hearing about what works (and what doesn’t) for other people, so don’t feel shy ;).

If this article has motivated or inspired you to start developing your lifestyle, be sure to browse the other pages or shoot Cam and Kevin a message.

Best of luck.
-M

Additional Materials:

PQRST Study Model

Black-Red-Green Model

SQ3R Model

Learning Types

References

Buzsáki G, Chen LS, Gage FH (1990). “Spatial organization of physiological activity in the hippocampal region: relevance to memory formation”. Prog Brain Res 83: 257–68.

Donovan, John J; Radosevich, David J. A meta-analytic review of the distribution of practice effect: Now you see it, now you don’t. Journal of Applied Psychology. Vol 84(5) Oct 1999, 795-805

Dulloo, A. G, Jacquet, J. (1998). “Adaptive reduction in basal metabolic rate in response to food deprivation in humans: a role for feedback signals from fat stores”. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 68 (3): 599–606.

Litman, L.; Davachi, L. (2008). “Distributed learning enhances relational memory consolidation”. Learning & memory (Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.) 15 (9): 711–716.

Willingham, D. T. (2002). “Allocating Student Study Time: “Massed” versus “Distributed” Practice”. American Educator. American Federation of Teachers.

About Mike Zhark
Young and ambitious are two words used when describing Mike Zhark. Mike was one of Kingpin Social’s students in the month of June. After deciding he wanted more options, Mike took the leap and decided Kingpin Social’s program was the best idea for him. Going into the school year armed with his newfound social skills, Mike Zhark plans to use his belief systems to his advantage to create the best options for himself in university. Mike is a nationally ranked Swimmer, will be joining the U of C Swim Team and spends his Tuesday Nights working at Mansion Nightclub. If you want to get in contact with Mike, click here.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Shark April 10, 2012 at 3:34 pm

The figure should read 9.58 hours if going for same grade while saving time.(16 hours /1.67)

Clarke April 27, 2012 at 12:51 am

Hi

I’m taking a few high level biology classes in the fall. This means i have to do a mass amount of memorization in a short time. Memory isn’t my strongest suite so I’m trying to bring myself to the next level. Some things i tried are recopying notes, repetition of material within short periods of learning it, and summery notes. Any other suggestions?

Clarke

Mike Shark April 30, 2012 at 6:01 pm

Hi Clarke,

I spent some time trying to gather the most effective techniques that I, as well as many other individuals in biology-related fields, use to achieve high grades. If you can appreciate that each science has its difficult “aspect” (E.g. chemistry demands a mastery of spatial orientation), I feel that the difficult aspect of biological sciences lies largely in the massive amount of content. To add insult to injury, this content is not always neatly grouped in mental categories which allow for easier memorization. Your techniques are already making you way more effective at nailing down all the content, but here are some things that I can recommend to take you to the next level:

1) Meet Up with Your Prof at the Beginning of the Course and @ Office Hours

There is so much value in meeting up with your professors and instructors, both at the beginning of the course and at office hours.

a) Two of my upper-level science prof’s showed me their own data on individuals who came to office hours. More than any other learning modality, students who consistently came to office hours (even to just clarify information or talk about something content-related that may interest you) were consistently the highest scorers on exams. If you’re having trouble finding a reason to go, take on the following challenge: Find 3 questions from your lecture every week to talk to your prof about.

b) By meeting with your prof, you get an idea of how they like to ask questions (ie are they detail-oriented, or do they like to look at the bigger picture? Will they quiz you on dates or specific numbers, or focus on implications of certain processes and actions?). If they do not have a test bank available so you can practice their questions, they may even write you a few questions for you to practice on and get an idea of how they do exams. For me, this was so huge in going for A+. Until I went in to see my prof, I would always mess up on small details or misinterpret questions.

2) Make Flashcards

You’re a busy guy, there’s lots of information in bio, and you don’t have time to always be re-writing and summarizing your notes. If you can make flash-cards (preferably with questions on one side and answers on another), you can quiz yourself or ask a friend to quiz you while waiting for lectures to start or while commuting. It is very important that you make the questions yourself, as this helps reinforce links between concepts.

3) Match Study Hours to Lecture Hours at a 1:1 Ratio (if possible)

This is kind of a guideline, and I’ll suggest you use your best judgement here. Not all courses require this, but if you can apply this to your moderate-hard difficulty courses, you’ll fly throughout the term.

4) Teach Someone Else

a) Have you heard of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning [http://www.jisctechdis.ac.uk/assets/Images/Blooms_taxonomy.png]? I feel that there is a ton of value in this model that describes different levels of information mastery.

Higher level biology courses will often demand mastery at the highest levels (synthesis and evaluation). These are questions where the answer will likely not be something you learned directly in class, and you must apply your own best judgement to evaluate how conditions affect the situation inquired about. (Eg. Cytochalasin B is an alkaloid and an mycotoxin. How might microtubules affect endoplasmic reticulum movement if alkaloid cytochalasin B was present at low-moderate amounts? If this process does not occur, write NA. Otherwise, describe the process using diagrams and short paragraphs).

Teaching others requires a mastery of the knowledge on your own part similar to the caliber of questions that will be asked of you on exams. It is extremely difficult to effectively communicate ideas to others without a good sense of how these ideas exist in your own mind.

b) I do not know by which mechanism this occurs, but teaching others has been shown to result in higher retention rates than the control of practicing on one’s own. I’m just guessing, but maybe it provides a novel experience in which you are interacting with the data.

5) Do Practice Tests

If a class has practice tests available, this provides an excellent opportunity for you to test your knowledge on a sample of the whole information presented thus far, and to get a good idea of what areas you need to focus on from there on.

If a class does not have practice tests available, there are two implications. A) You may seek out your prof and ask for even a few practice questions to get an idea of how tests will be presented. B) You may seek out peers who have previously completed the course. No practice tests almost always implies that the teachers recycle tests…If you can find individuals who have taken the class before, you can find out what will be asked and prepare accordingly.

I hope all of this helps Clarke. Feel free to comment or send me updates via this page or facebook to develop a learning model or learning techniques that help you achieve your desired level of success.

(:

Graig April 18, 2013 at 4:49 am

Amazing post. I’ve got a dilemma. As a website owner, just how long did it require for your blog site to become profitable? Furthermore what do you like most with regards to blogging?

Cam April 22, 2013 at 2:38 pm

@ Graig – The answer to that question is very relative to the amount of work you put into it. If you put a solid amount of work into things over the course of a year or two you should be looking good, but it really comes down to how hard you work and whether that work is smart or not.

Immigration Advicers in Barking April 30, 2013 at 8:15 am

A motivating discussion is definitely worth comment.
I do think that you ought to write more about this
subject matter, it might not be a taboo matter but typically folks don’t discuss these subjects. To the next! Cheers!!

Hai May 2, 2013 at 2:36 am

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you that I enjoyed reading the article. I in all honesty don’t believe that many people know just how much effort that goes into constructing a blog. I know that this is kind of random nevertheless it really bothers me sometimes. Anyhow excellent blog.

Mike Zhark May 2, 2013 at 10:48 am

Hey guys, thanks for the wonderful comments!

@IAB : Will definitely try to incorporate that. I personally feel that there are excellent videos and tools all around us for motivating us (Youtube: “How bad you want it? Success”), however a short aside or articles written in the tone of motivation may prove to be fruitful in helping others as well.

@HAI : Thank you! Was there anything particular you enjoyed about it? Would like to see expanded on?

jinha October 24, 2013 at 7:20 pm

Hi, thank you so much for the good informative read!
I was just wondering, how much “sleep” would you recommend per night? I typically sleep 6 hours which I do not think is enough because I always wake up tired and I feel like I’m never fully awake in class. On rare occasions, I even write class notes half-sleeping and when I’m back to my right state, I can’t even recognize my own handwriting.

Anyways, I tried different patterns of sleeping from 8 hours to 7 and a half, 6 and a half, whatever, but none of them seem to work for me. Also, I usually fall asleep at 1am and wake up at 7 am ~ 8 am (8 am being I’M LATE FOR SCHOOL…).

I really want to fix my bad sleeping habits and try to find something that works. Any tips? Thank you!

Mike Shark October 24, 2013 at 7:42 pm

Hey Jinha,

While I am not a sleep doctor, I have read a ton of things that really helped me to get my sleep under control. I’ll share with you what I know, then we can assess what works best for you.

It is my understanding that for most people, 7.5 hours of sleep (or 5 “full” sleep cycles of 1.5 hours) is sufficient for you to be at your “cognitive baseline (normal thinking/processing ability).” While some people can claim to function on less (or do so very successfully), getting as low as 6 hours per night for a long period of time can impose a “cognitive load” onto your brain where there is evidence for:

i) Difficulty assessing problems (versus normal)
ii) Difficulty encoding new memories (obviously detrimental to studying)

We don’t want either of these things to happen.

On the opposite end of the scale, there is some evidence that 9 hours (6 sleep “cycles” of ~1.5 hours) does provide a bit of benefit over baseline, such that participants in a study showed better ability to encode information (remember) and process challenging problems more effectively.

This benefit kind of disappears once you had more than 6 sleep cycles though (9 hours), with negligible benefit at 10.5 and 12.0 hours (7 and 8 sleep cycles).

I’ve been told by several Cognitive/Neuropsychologists that sleep should be thought of in these 1.5 hour “blocks” based on the repeated cycles our brain goes through in this time frame. So if you’re thinking of getting 6 hours 45 minutes sleep, its really as effective as 6 hours sleep (or at least that is my understanding of it), rounded to the most recent whole 1.5 hours.

SO.

To Summarize “How much sleep should I get”
-Less than 6 or less hours over a long period of time will probably affect your ability to perform well in mentally challenging tasks, especially school
-7.5 Hours is where you want to be at a minimum
-9.0 hours is great if you can afford the time, but not necessary.
-10.5+ hours will provide little benefit over 9.0 hours
-KEEP IN MIND it takes time to fall asleep, and this is NOT included in any of the above numbers
-Naps provide less benefit (even in 1.5 hour blocks) than sleeping.
1.5 hour nap + 6.0 hour sleep =/= (DOES NOT EQUAL) 7.5 hours continuous sleep

As to your question about fixing bad sleeping habits…

-Are you going to bed at a consistent time (eg within the same 30 minutes every day for at least 10 days straight)?
-Have you tried sleeping for 8 hours straight? How many nights (consecutively) did you do this for before you stopped?
-Do you nap during the day? If so, at what time?
-Do you consume caffeine regularly? If so, at what time?
-Do you watch TV/do anything with a computer screen before bed?

By answering these questions we can get a better idea of where you’re at and go from there 🙂

jinha October 26, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Hi Mark! Thanks for the reply, I really appreciate it.

Yes, I go to bed at a fairly consistent time, usually 12:30 am.
I have tried sleeping for 8 hours, maybe a couple days? I find it hard for me to fall asleep as early as 11 pm (which is still late for some people) since I’m so used to sleeping late now…

Typically, I do not nap during the day although I always hear of the benefits of a 20-minute power nap; some people suggest napping right after school and I’ve tried this but have failed after my “20-minute power naps” turned into a full hour of napping (had trouble waking up). So, to answer your question, no, I do not take naps very often.

As for caffeine, I do not consume it on a regular basis. Sometimes I’ll have soda or a mocha frap (etc.) at lunch and maybe tea during the afternoon, but not everyday or in any particular order.

Yes, I will usually be on my computer until maybe 30 mins ~ an hour before sleeping. I have a computer in my room, and I know a lot of people say this is bad, but unfortunately I can not move my computer anywhere else in the house (limited space), so that is not an option. Also, even after turning my computer off, I will be on my cellphone, which is also my alarm to wake me up in the morning.

And you said “KEEP IN MIND it takes time to fall asleep, and this is NOT included in any of the above numbers”, but for me, I can sleep almost instantly. I’ll close my eyes and be sleeping within a minute or two; I don’t know if this is normal or not.

I’m really not a morning person and am most productive at night (a “night owl” as some people may say), but prior to reading this article, I have been waking up an hour earlier everyday, for the past few days, in order to try this productive method of studying. I have a few major tests coming up and I’m hoping to receive good results. I don’t know if the method is working for me (and it’s really hard for me to wake up early) but it’s definitely making me feel better when I DO wake up and it makes me feel like I have more time in my hands. I think the only problem is that I’m waking up earlier but I’m still sleeping around the same time… Sorry, and thanks, for listening to one of the biggest problems in my life right now.

Mike Shark November 7, 2013 at 9:37 am

Hey Jinha,

I perceive a bit of an issue akin to the “Chicken and the Egg”…

It’s hard to fall asleep early because you wake up late, and waking up early is hard because you are up late.

Waking up early has been the right choice to adjusting your sleep schedule – you often have to take a “hit” somewhere to adjust your schedule. How has it been working out for you? Have you found you have been able to go to bed earlier?

The computer itself isn’t bad. The problem comes from two places:
-Your mind is constantly stimulated with TV/Computer, you’re still receiving information and the cogs are still turning in your brain (so to speak)
-Light. Your brain has difficulty producing melatonin to induce sleeping with constant exposure to light. I think this is an especially big problem with most current screens (high gamma, brightness, etc.) which are super saturated and make our brains think its noon during summer time.

Would you be willing to try getting 8 hours “dedicated sleep” for two or more weeks? In your log, keep track of:
-“Lights out” time
-Percieved sleep quality
-What you did before sleeping
I would also ask you keep a log of how you feel, reporting this every four days (to notice any differences).

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