- The Washington Times - Monday, December 10, 2001

Early December marks the final weeks of holiday shopping for many of us, but for area students, this time of year has a different, more serious implication: It's final exam time.

While many holiday shoppers may be able to cram all their purchasing into one day, few students can say the same about preparing for finals.
To prepare effectively, most students have to plan their study schedule over a longer period of time, take good notes and repeat information multiple times, say academic counselors at universities in the District and Northern Virginia.
"The main issue is time management," says Mary Lee Vance, director of Academic Support and Advising Services at George Mason University in Fairfax City. "I think people need to be taught and shown how to use their time more effectively."
At American University, Kathy Schwartz, director of the Academic Support Center, gives students a blank five-week schedule that can be used to designate study time. One column is devoted to "goals," and in this column, students can define what study goals they have for a specific day or week.
If you study consistently and have time to review the material over and over again, chances are you can achieve a more thorough knowledge that is more likely to stick in the long run, Ms. Schwartz says. It's called "overlearning."
Overlearning often means, in part, that the student has time to step away from the material, get perspective on it and ask himself or herself, "What do I really know?" Ms. Schwartz says.
"That's when you can go in and be confident during the exam. It's a deep level of learning," says Ms. Schwartz, whose office also helps students with special needs, such as students with attention deficit disorder.
Sometimes, however, incremental studying is impossible because a student has waited until the last minute to open his or her notebook. If a student comes in two days before the exam and is in a total panic about final exams, an academic counselor helps him or her define a realistic goal and decide what to focus on during the short time available.
"If you have two days, you have to make some careful choices as to what you need to learn," Ms. Schwartz says. "We encourage students to try to predict what's going to be on the test."

While educators and academic counselors make recommendations which often work to students who want to improve their study skills, scientists are still working on unveiling the keys to learning.
"We are just now beginning to understand how new learning takes place but we don't have a formula for how we learn more or better," says Alfredo Kirkwood, assistant professor of neuroscience at the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
"We know there may be a relation between learning and rehearsing, but there is no formula to explain it," Mr. Kirkwood says. "We know there may be a relation between REM sleep and learning, but we don't have a formula for how it works."
REM stands for rapid eye movement. During REM sleep, brain activity is intense, and the brain's state is similar to its state when awake. It's marked by bursts of rapid eye movement and intense dreaming. It is possible that some of the brain's activity at this time affects learning.
Because there are so few hard facts about learning, academic counselors encourage students to find their own way and figure out how they function best.
"Memory techniques are so individual. What works for one person may not work as well for someone else," Ms. Schwartz says. "The basic principle for students is [to] use whatever has worked in the past."
Some people need to take frequent breaks to clear their minds; others cram for a few days and do well on the exam. A third group has to plan in detail what and where they are going to study in order to get the best results.
Sitting in the "tavern," a food-court area at American University, one recent afternoon, Candan Aganer, 24, who is working toward her master's degree in business administration with a focus on financing, was preparing for a presentation on electronic commerce.
"When I prepare for an exam? I just take notes and listen carefully. Then I highlight my notes and refer to the textbook," Ms. Aganer says.
"I try to pay attention to what the professor pays attention to" because that probably will appear on the exam, she says.
Another student, senior Kristin Labs, 22, whose major is international relations, says she just rewrites all her notes in preparation for an exam.
"I am a visual learner, and the more I see [the material], the more ingrained it gets," Ms. Labs says.
Thomas Deriso, 31, who is training to become a massage therapist and was using the American University student center to study for an upcoming test, relies on much more elaborate techniques.
Mr. Deriso uses mnemonic methods to remember bone and muscle groups. For example, the bones that make up the shoulder joint the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapilaris become SITS for short.
He also condenses dozens of pages of notes and information to just a couple on which the information is concise and grouped together in a fashion in which it makes most sense to him.
"I try to keep it as minimal as possible because this is what I will remember. When I shut my eyes, I see this page just as it is," Mr. Deriso says.
Though study techniques such as mnemonic systems, note-taking and focused listening can help students conquer their finals, some skills perhaps have more far-reaching effects: setting priorities and analyzing one's own strengths and weaknesses.
"Many of us are inclined to procrastinate, but I tell students, 'Do the easiest tasks last. Let them be the dessert.' What you least like is what you should do first," Ms. Schwartz says.
Ms. Vance calls this the ABCs of task priorities.
"A" stands for a task that has to be done within 24 hours. "B" stands for a task that may have a two- or three-day deadline. "C" is the least time sensitive.
"C" can be calling your grandmother or cleaning the bathrooms. It is the easiest one to do, and it is the one you see the results of first," Ms. Vance says, adding that her bathrooms have never been as clean as while she was writing her dissertation.
Good studying techniques and knowledge about how one operates are good to have at any age. If a student acquires them early, it may make a world of difference once the student reaches the workplace, Ms. Vance says.
"You have to learn how to devise strategies and stick to them, you have to learn your body's rhythm, and you have to learn when your peak performance is," she says.

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