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Successfully Preparing for Final Exams in Graduate School

Ann Marie Corrado

posted November 1, 2016

Congratulations on beginning your new journey as a graduate student!  Now that you have all survived the first two months of graduate school, the task of making notes in class and adequately studying for your final exams can seem overwhelming.  Fortunately, researchers have identified many study tips that can help you achieve better marks on your exams.  Researchers have found that when university students take notes with a notebook instead of a computer, they are less distracted and their notes are less verbatim (1).  Although computer and pen-and-paper note-takers performed the same on recall questions, students who take notes by hand are better able to answer conceptual questions and have better long-term comprehension of the information they have learned (1).  In addition, the spacing effect has reinforced the concept that spacing your review time for each course over an extended period of time will lead to better retention of the information (2).  In other words, cramming is not an effective way to study, so make sure to save a few blocks of time throughout the semester to review your notes. Moreover, your mental state is also important when it comes to studying and writing exams.  A concept known as state-dependent memory explains that the state we study and learn information in is the same state in which we best recall information during an exam (3).  For example, an early study on state-dependent memory found that when a list of words was given with sound in the background, an individual’s ability to recall the words two days later “was better and forgetting was less if the acoustic background was reinstated rather than changed or removed” (4). Therefore, it is in your best interest not to study with music in the background if you will be writing your exam in a silent room. In conclusion, it is my hope that you will attend your lectures with a pen and notebook in hand, space your studying out before exams and study in the same state you plan on writing your exams in.  I hope these study tips will be useful in your graduate school journey and allow you to reach your full academic potential. Once you have completed your courses successfully, you will have lots of time to focus on your research!



1. Association for Psychological Science (APS).  (2014, April 24).  Take Notes by Hand for Better Long-Term Comprehension.  Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/take-notes-by-hand-for-better-long-term-comprehension.html

2. Sisti, H.M., Glass, A.L. & Shors, T.J. (2007). Neurogenesis and the spacing effect: Learning over time enhances memory and the survival of new neurons. Learning & Memory, 14(5), 368-375.

3. Woolfolk, A., Winnie, P.H., & Perry, N.E. (2015). Educational Psychology (6th Canadian Edition). Toronto, Canada: Pearson. 

4. Smith, S.M. (1985). Background music and context-dependent memory. The American Journal of Psychology, 98(4), 591-603.