It’s a scenario all college students have experienced. After months of hard work, you have finally finished all of your assignments. Every test, paper, quiz, project and deadline are nothing more than artifacts of history. Now, the only obstacle left between you and a long-awaited break are final exams.
A recurring rite-of-passage to some, final exams are the culmination of a course’s teachings, usually packed into one short albeit incredibly stressful week in which college students across the country will finish their classes before enjoying a long-awaited break; but not before partaking in bad lifestyle habits that contribute to poor performance.
In his New York Times bestseller, “The Power of Habit,” author Charles Duhigg explains that very large outcomes often occur through relatively small and seemingly unimportant “keystone habits” that we all partake in, knowingly or not, every day. The kinds of habits differ from person to person but can range from the types of food you eat to the way you plan your day. Duhigg argues that by altering these keystone habits even slightly, we have the power to drastically change the outcome of our actions and improve our lives.
At TCU, there is no better time to witness these keystone habits in action than during the week of final exams, where stress-levels are high and bad habits begin to surface.
Sleep-deprived students begin consuming dangerous amounts of caffeine in the form of energy drinks and “supplements” in an attempt to stay awake and continue studying. Other students begin using tobacco products such as cigarettes and chewing tobacco, taking advantage of tobacco’s psychoactive compound, nicotine, which has been heavily documented as aiding users’ concentration. In addition, a growing number of students are openly abusing prescription ADHD medications such as Adderall and Vyvanse in a disturbing race to outperform their peers.
Although the habits listed above might not apply to all students, all TCU students partake in their very own seemingly innocuous keystone habits, which could play a vital role in their ability to do well on final exams. By examining four basic keystone habits, students can maximize their chances of doing well on an exam.
The first keystone habit students should evaluate before finals involves food. Unhealthy dietary habits are a prominent keystone habit displayed by some TCU students during finals week. With such little time, some students take the easy way out and eat fast food in an attempt to free up more time for studying, and Cole Nead’s choice is a popular one.
“Most of my meals during finals week consist of pizza,” said Nead, an economics major from Frisco, Texas. “It gets the job done,” he said.
While the idea of fast food being unhealthy probably isn’t a new discovery to most people, the mental effects an unhealthy diet can have on the brain just might be. According to 2013 study, researchers at the University of New South Wales concluded that, “even a short-term diet of junk food can have a detrimental effect on the brain’s cognitive ability.” In their study, which involved feeding rats both healthy and unhealthy food, researchers discovered that the rats that ate the unhealthy food high in fat had a noticeably impaired memory just one week after the study began. Like many studies involving rodents, researchers believe that the same memory impairment also occurs to humans as well.
Cole is not the only TCU student guilty of committing a dietary folly during finals week.
“Who has time to cook three meals a day during finals week?” asked Andrew Pajela, an economics major who is graduating in Dec. Like Cole, Andrew has his own preferred finals week menu. “I usually alternate between going to Fuzzy’s for lunch and Panda Express for dinner,” he said.
Pajela raises a good point: The logistics involved in planning a week’s worth of meals such as going to the grocery store, preparing the ingredients and actually cooking is a very time-consuming process that for some takes away far too much time that could instead be used for studying. Fortunately, there are options for students who want to eat healthy during final exams without the hassle of creating a menu and shopping for ingredients.
This semester, Pajela will be altering his dietary habits by purchasing pre-made meals from Central Market in advance, instead of his usual menu items from Fuzzy’s and Panda Express. “Central Market’s pre-made meals are great,” Pajela said. “They taste good and they’re healthy too.”
For students who don’t actually dislike cooking, just the trip to the grocery store, Plated is an excellent timesaving option. Plated is a relatively new service that allows culinary-inclined individuals to skip the drive to the grocery store and order a week’s worth of meals from a chef-created menu that changes each week. After placing an order, all of the necessary ingredients for your meals will arrive by mail, fresh in a dry-ice-filled cooler.
Lexi Johnson, a fourth-year journalism major from El Paso, Texas, enjoys the freedom Plated provides her. “I love Plated,” Johnson said. “I don’t have to worry about planning a trip to the grocery store; everything comes to me.”
Students wanting a healthy meal in addition to the convenience of fast food can visit Simply Fit Meals. Located at the corner of University Drive and West 7th Street, Simply Fit Meals offers health-conscious individuals low-fat, pre-cooked, individually portioned meals that only require a quick trip in the microwave.
Like Pajela, Johnson also prefers to purchase pre-made meals when she isn’t cooking using ingredients she received from Plated. “I really like Simply Fit Meals,” she said. “They’re quick and healthy.”
The second, and arguably most important, keystone habit students should be aware of during finals week is sleep. It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that finals week is synonymous with all-nighters, or the act of staying up all night studying. For some students, pulling an all-nighter during finals week is an expected thing to do.
“I always pull at least one all-nighter during finals week,” Pajela says. “There isn’t enough time in the day to complete everything I want to do.”
Nead’s sleep schedule isn’t much better. “I probably get a couple of hours of sleep a night during finals,” Nead says. “I stay up as long as I have to.”
A full night’s sleep has more benefits than just feeling awake. A 2012 study gives merit to the belief that a student who pulls an all-nighter is less likely to perform as well as a student who only studied for a few hours but got significantly more sleep.
Madison Hassell, a fourth-year nursing student from Plano, Texas, doesn’t let anything get in the way of her sleep, especially during final exams. “I have to sleep at least eight hours each night,” Hassell says. “Otherwise, I can’t function.”
The third keystone habit students should evaluate before final exams is, not surprisingly, their study habits as well as their time management skills. And, for many, final exams are a reasonable excuse for pulling all-nighters in an attempt to boost their grade.
Natasha Waters, an academic advisor at TCU’s Center for Academic Services recommends that students allow themselves five days of studying for each exam they have to prevent burning out. “We recommend studying each subject for 45-minutes a day, five days before it is to be taken,” she said. “Cramming isn’t very efficient.”
Nead, a self-proclaimed “former-procrastinator,” says he is no stranger to cramming for a test. “I used to wait until the last minute to study,” Nead said. “Now I start earlier and spread everything out.”
Madison Hassell finds that her time is best spent by dividing her work into days and then dividing each day’s work equally. “I’ll spend the first half of the day studying for one test, and the second half studying for another,” she says.
Similarly, Pajela finds that he studies best by dividing his material up by difficulty as well as date. “I begin studying for my most difficult exams first,” Andrew says. “If I have an easier exam before a hard one, I’ll alternate studying between them,” he said.
If students find 45-minute study sessions too long, they could consider utilizing a time management system such as the Pomodoro Technique, a time management system that allows individuals to work through large amounts of work quickly by breaking the work up into 25-minute “chunks” followed by a series of three to five minute breaks.
In addition to breaking each class into separate chunks, Waters also recommends taking systematic breaks when studying. “It’s important to give your mind a break between subjects,” she said. As noted earlier, a tired brain is of no use to a college student studying for final exams. Exercising and spending time outdoors is an excellent way to relieve final exam stress. In fact, researchers from the University of Michigan found that participants who spent as little as one hour outdoors had a twenty-percent increase in cognitive functions as well as reduced stress levels compared to their counterparts who did not spend time outdoors.
A simple walk outside is all it takes for Pajela to take his mind off studying. “After a few hours of studying, I’ll take a 30-minute walk around my neighborhood,” Pajela said. “It really clears your mind.”
For Nead, the stress-relieving benefits of the gym remain unmatchable. “Working out is the only way I can relax during finals,” Nead said. “Humans aren’t meant to sit down all day long.”
If lifting weights isn’t your idea of relieving stress, you might try embracing your inner Beethoven like Madison Hassell. “I’ll usually play the piano,” Hassell said. “I only play when I’m really stressed out though.”
Regardless of one’s chosen activity, students should make a conscious effort to take regular breaks during their final exam study sessions.