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Crush your exams, not your brain!

The days are getting shorter, leaves are falling, the northern lights are shining and regardless of whether we want it or not… Exams are coming! But fear not, here are some useful study and time management techniques so that you can ace all your finals.

Text: Martí Amargant Arumí and Alena Antipina

“Pomodoro®” timer

If you are one of those persons who can focus on one task for six hours straight without draining your brainpower, way to go! I envy and admire you. For the rest of the mortals, there are “pomodori” (tomatoes in Italian). This time management technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 80s, breaks down your work session into shorter intervals. Set a timer for 25 minutes and work concentrated on your task without stopping. Don’t let anything distract you (stay away from the Internet!). When the timer reaches 0, you have completed one pomodoro, so take a 5-minute break and start again. After 4 pomodori it is time for a longer pause of 15-30 minutes. Working in this way, your study sessions can be extended to longer periods of time without experiencing a “burnout” and your work and your leisure are effectively separated.

You can keep track of time using several methods (fun fact: the name of the technique comes from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo owned as a university student). Apart from any regular stopwatch, there are apps specifically designed for this technique. Pomodoro timer Lite (Free, Android) or Flat tomato (Free, iOS) are good examples.

Covey’s management grid

Do you sometimes feel overloaded with work? If you just keep a mental list of everything you have to do, it is fairly easy for all your tasks to become a big menacing storm cloud in your head. But if you look at it with a cool head, you will realize that not everything has the same priority. Replying to an e-mail doesn’t take as much time as your 20-page essay due in two months, right? But perhaps the essay will have a bigger influence on your grades. Sort it out! Stephen Covey came up with an incredibly simple but equally useful tool to do so.

Draw a 2×2 grid, and label the columns and rows with “importance” and “urgency”. Try to place your tasks into the corresponding quadrant: maybe your email is not so important but is quite urgent, and the essay is very important but you still have plenty of time to work on it. By doing this, you realize that a big portion of what was worrying you will be finished pretty quickly, or that you don’t need to stress out about it right now. Clear your mind and get on working!

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Flashcards

The good old memorizing method! If you know the lyrics of a thousand songs by heart but can’t even remember the full name of your course, this technique is something for you. It is strikingly simple, and effective just by sheer repetition. Take a blank deck of cards (get crafty! Cut out paper or cardboard sheets into small pieces) and write questions about your classes on one side, and the answers on the other. Keep them with you and test yourself whenever you have time: shuffle the cards and try to answer the questions without looking at the answer and repeat until you can solve them! You may remove the cards you already know from the deck so that only the hardest questions remain and testing becomes more effective.

Cutting cardboard is too much work for you? Well, as usual, there is an app for that! Actually, there are lots of apps for that. Studyblue or Chegg (free, iOS and Android), for example, are very useful tools that even let you insert images and audio into your cards, making it even easier for your song-filled memory.

As for the group study techniques, we recommend a certain approach, which is widely used among students all over the world. For instance, you and your mates have a complicated course, where you have to read several huge and difficult books. If this is a humanitarian study, where you need to understand and interpret mostly, rather than learn everything by heart (which is, to our point of view, impossible), all the group participants can divide the compulsory reading among everyone, so each would have the obligatory part, as equal as possible. Then after completing the task, you gather at some cozy place, with lots of fresh air around (this will help you focus and keep the mind clear to overthink the material). Within the process, you discuss the readings and your own summaries and then formulate a thesis document, which you can use to prepare for an exam. There is one difficulty in this approach, which is actually crucial: each and everyone has their style of studying and conceiving information. You cannot force anyone to fit one particular style, so in a  group study you have to relax and keep calm, do your part and slightly motivate other people’s activity, but with self-confidence and respect!

However, none of these study tips are universal. They might work for some students and be a waste of time for others or you could find that they are efficient for some time and then become obsolete for your needs. It’s ok, no one’s state of mind is permanent 😉 Use these occasions as opportunities to find new or even create your own techniques, and don’t forget to tell us!