Final Exams: Helping Students Succeed

New Research Provides Fresh Perspective on Learning Behaviors and Study Habits

December 06, 2018


final exams



College students use a wide variety of methods to learn and study for final exams. Fortunately, they don’t all involve cramming sessions that last through the night.


One way that schools can support students is by fostering open discussions about how they learn and study. While it’s useful to have in-person dialogue, classroom time is precious — and not all course formats lend themselves to that option. It helps to take advantage of discussion tools and features in learning management systems and digital learning platforms. Honest conversations can help students gain perspective on how their peers approach studying and learning — and ultimately help shape strategies tailored to their own strengths and preferences.


New research offers some interesting insights on how students’ behaviors — and even the perception of others’ behaviors — affect their success. Here are a few examples of research findings that can serve as conversation starters around learning and studying, before exams and throughout the semester.


Students don’t know how much time their peers spend studying

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently shared findings from four studies conducted with hundreds of social psychology undergrads. They observed that, generally, students underestimated the average amount of time their peers spent studying for an upcoming exam. Going in, researchers anticipated that this might lead students to spend less time studying themselves, leading to a poorer performance. However, students who overestimated the average amount of time their peers spent studying actually performed worse on the exam. They felt unprepared, which researchers believe may have caused a heightened sense of anxiety and self-doubt, negatively impacting their performance.


Before a subsequent exam, the researchers corrected students’ misperceptions about average study time. As a result, the average performance for the exam was better than that of a similar exam earlier in the semester. The data showed there was no longer a link between typical study time and feelings of unpreparedness.


These findings suggest that it may be helpful to encourage students to discuss their study habits and plans on an ongoing basis. While faculty can provide guidance and make recommendations, students may feel more comfortable discussing amongst themselves, within smaller study groups or in a discussion thread.


Electronics in the classroom can hurt final exam scores

Many students like to use laptops, tablets and even smartphones to take notes in class — or have them handy for non-academic reasons. However, when these devices are used in the classroom, during a lesson, they can hurt long-term performance.


A study led by Arnold Glass, professor of psychology at Rutgers University, divided 118 students taking the same course from the same professor teaching the same material into two groups. One group could have devices open for non-academic purposes during class, and the other group could not. While the students allowed to use their devices did not score lower on comprehension tests during the lectures, they scored five percentage points lower on exams at the end of the term — the equivalent of half a letter grade. Students in the group who were allowed to use devices, but chose not to also scored lower, which researchers attributed to distraction from others’ devices.


Glass recommends having a proactive discussion about devices and their potential impact. “Many dedicated students think they can divide their attention in the classroom without harming their academic success — but we found an insidious effect on exam performance and final grades,” he says. “To help manage the use of devices in the classroom, teachers should explain to students the damaging effect of distractions on retention — not only on themselves, but for the whole class.”


Listening to music while studying can impede learning

Many people believe that listening to music helps them concentrate, but research shows that students, at least, may want to consider hitting pause while doing homework or studying.


A study conducted by Cardiff Metropolitan University divided students into four groups. The groups studied the same passage in different environments: in silence; while listening to music with lyrics they liked; while listening to music with lyrics they didn’t like; and listening to music without lyrics. Not surprisingly, in a subsequent exam on the passage, the students who studied in quiet performed more than 60 percent better than those listening to music with lyrics. Students who listened to instrumental music also did better on the exam than those listening to music with lyrics. Whether or not the students liked the song lyrics made no difference. Listening to music negatively impacted performance both ways.


These findings are worth sharing with students — and taking the opportunity to exchange tips and ideas that may work better for concentration and memory. Purdue University shared a list of unusual study hacks that could get the conversation going, including using fonts that are more challenging to read, as it makes text harder to skim or skip over. The university also recommended introducing a new or unfamiliar scent — or flavor of gum — while studying, then reintroducing the smell before the exam or chewing the same gum while taking the exam.


Ultimately, while students are in charge of their own learning and study behaviors, schools can equip them with relevant insights. Discussing such information, in person and online, can help support greater student success.


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