Midterm studying advice I could have used a week ago

For many, midterms have already passed by, but if you are as unlucky as I, then maybe you have one more just around the corner. Whether this be a midterm you are taking or one you are grading, the advice in this blog post should be universal. However, if you are lucky enough to be past midterms already, maybe these recommendations will live on in your brain until finals roll around! So while it probably would have been helpful for me to know much of this last week, maybe my Algorithms exam will go swimmingly now that I’m imbued by the great advice that follows.

Breaks are better than breakdowns

I know you’ve likely heard this one, since the Pomodoro time management system has been recommended to me by everyone from my doctor to my mother, but for the uninitiated, the Pomodoro technique is centered around the idea of breaking your workday into 25 minute chunks, with five minute breaks in between (plus a 20 minute break after every fourth chunk). Now, while 25 minute chunks don’t necessarily work for me (I prefer 40 minutes), the science behind it is very clear. According to Loren Frank, a professor at the Center for Integrative Neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco, “to learn something well, you need to study it for a while and then take a break.” Your brain needs time to process the information that you feed it, and while the amount of break time necessary might vary based on the content you are learning, you can take solace in the fact that choosing to get up and take a walk through the woods in search of turtles is actually helping you to retain information better!

You’ve got to mix it to get the biscuit

Many times, the best way to study is by mixing it up! Varying the types of learning you engage in–such as reviewing definitions and theorems, doing practice problems, or vocalizing explanations to others–is proven to be a much more effective method of studying than spending hours and hours on one method. Even when doing practice problems, research shows that mixing up the types of problems teaches students to recognize a problem type and respond accordingly, rather than performing a rote skill that they’ve memorized. This also much more closely mirrors an exam situation, where the questions will likely be mixed as well! Integration is a great example of a place where mixing it up can pay off. Just doing integration by parts over and over might make you great at it, but it might not make you great at recognizing when to use it. Identifying the best method for solving a problem takes some practice, and much of that practice comes from challenging yourself to do exactly that.

S P R E A D  I T  O U T

Try spreading the material and study time out over several days. Dating as far back as 1964, German researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered that spreading out the information you wish to learn, and doing a little every day, helps you to retain the information much better than learning it all at once. This is because the best way to remember something is to learn it, then forget it, and then learn it again. If your brain has to revisit topics multiple times, then it is spending more time on the process of solidifying that specific information. The more time you spend and the more deeply you have to think to ingrain information, the more likely you are to remember it. This is good! It means if something is hard to learn, then it is also hard to forget.

Set boundaries outside of the unit disk

When we think about setting boundaries, we often think of other people, but I have found that in graduate school there is great benefit in setting boundaries for yourself. A popular example of this is choosing a day of the week on which you will not do any work. The boundaries are for when you say to yourself “why don’t I just finish grading this stuff instead of going to the movie I had planned on?” No! Fight that urge! Rather, commit to giving yourself purposeful breaks that happen even when you’re not strung out and forced into stopping. Planning times during the week to separate yourself from your work helps to implement the earlier advice of taking breaks and spreading it out. Those things are impossible to do if you never have a night off!

Eat, sleep, and exercise (your mom will thank you)

The World Health Organization has officially defined burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Many are now calling it a public health epidemic that is “sweeping the nation.” So what is recommended to combat burnout? A balanced diet, a healthy sleep schedule, and exercise. In other words–self care. Drinking coffee instead of eating lunch is not doing you any favors, though it may feel like it when the day is dwindling. Just remember, you are playing the long game, and the name of that game is sustainability. If your choices aren’t healthy, burnout might be around that corner.

Like Elsa, learn to Let It Go

If no one has told you this already, let me be the first: you cannot accomplish everything perfectly. A quote popularly attributed to G.K. Chesterton, reminds us that “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” Now, it turns out he didn’t really mean it the way most of us interpret it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good advice! Sometimes the best thing you can do for your learning (and sanity) is to turn in what you know and be done with it. At a certain point, finished is better than perfect, and that point comes when the value of letting yourself stop surpasses the value of the assignment. (For me that point is usually near 9pm when the words begin floating around on the page.) Whenever this time comes for you, I heartily recommend: do what you can, turn it in, and move on.

Final Thoughts

All of this advice is meant to be taken with a grain of salt. If there is something I’ve said that doesn’t work for you, don’t worry! Study habits you enjoy might not work for me either. You may also want to try different variations on these tips–like adjusting the timing on the Pomodoro technique to better fit your habits. Consider reading this post a thought experiment meant to get you thinking about your study habits and the healthiness of them. There is no one solution that works for everyone, so if I’ve missed a tip that works well for you, be sure to leave it in a comment. I know that I, at the very least, am always looking for some good advice!


About alexisnewton

Alexis Newton is a second year Ph.D. student at Emory University studying computational number theory. She earned her master's degree at Wake Forest University. She is also an instructor for Emory Math Circle and a co-organizer for Emory's weekly graduate student seminar in algebra and number theory. Outside of the math department, Alexis enjoys reading, writing, and playing with her cat Alfie.
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