Slackers, listen up. You might think that studying for a midterm is just like studying for anything else—you might even opt to skip the studying altogether and just wing it—but these exams can cover half a semester's worth of material, and they can be just as challenging and important as finals, students say. We asked students, alumni, and staff from a variety of schools across the country what advice they would give to those who are about to sit for midterms, which usually fall around late February or early March. Surprisingly, their tips show not only that there are different ways to approach the exam but that colleges are trying out some interesting ways to throw some fun and relaxation into the equation.
Kathryn Turcsany, a graduate of Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn., who is now a middle school English teacher, recommends incorporating multiple modes of learning—such as visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles—into your studying. This can reinforce key concepts and help you remember them. For instance, you can create your own charts and drawings to visually conceptualize the connections in the course material. "Have someone else quiz you orally on the information," Turcsany says, "since hearing offers another mode of learning." Also, scan through your textbooks and make sure that after reading the subheads you can summarize the content contained in each chapter or section. You might even want to try to predict questions that will appear on the midterm based on the textbook's review questions.
If you take notes, review and rewrite them immediately after class before your short-term memory fizzles out. But during class, if you have to choose between listening and understanding or taking notes, you should listen, says Cynthia Crimmins, director of the Learning Resource Center at York College of Pennsylvania. You can always get the notes later from a classmate or even from the professor directly, since more and more professors are now posting their lessons online.
Charles McElwee, a junior at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., recommends talking to students who have taken the course in the past. "They can offer advice on the best ways to study," he says. Don't be shy about reaching out to others who can serve as resources. If your college offers tutoring services, see if you can meet with a tutor to help you prepare for midterms in difficult subjects, says McElwee. If you're having trouble studying, meeting with your professor is another great way to get advice on the best approach to the exam. It also shows your instructor that you care about your success.
Students across the board stress the importance of time management. Matt Shaw, a junior at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, says that blocking out chunks of time to look back through various homework assignments helps him stay on top of everything. But don't go overboard. "Lengthy study sessions can be mind numbing," says Brittany Rathbone, a sophomore at St. Leo University in St. Leo, Fla. During breaks, she says she likes to engage in an activity that gives her brain some downtime without completely shutting off, such as playing the piano. If you're not musically inclined, think about going for a walk, exercising, or meditating.
Don't let studying interfere with your health. Mike Milliken, program director of college wellness at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, says that when academics and extracurricular activities pile up it can be hard for students to take care of themselves physically. You might feel like you don't have time to exercise, he says, but working a 20-to-60-minute session into your schedule can do wonders in helping you manage stress and clear your mind. Try to nourish your body with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and healthy proteins such as fish, tofu, or chicken, he says.
Fortunately, if you're living on campus, finding healthful and mentally stimulating things to do during your breaks should not be too hard, since colleges these days are really getting in on the action when it comes to stress reduction. In fact, it would be hard to find a school that does not at least offer some form of a "stress-free zone" during finals week and midterm season.
At Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, for instance, the Center for Leadership in Health Promotion hosts a study-break space in the library during exam period where students can relieve stress, refocus, and become energized. Free, healthful snacks, such as fruits, juices, and nuts, are offered, but the big draw lies in the $2 relaxation massages, art therapy stress management sessions, and instruction in relaxation techniques. Lori Morgan Flood, an assistant dean and the director of CLHP, estimates that as many as 100 students might take advantage of the services during test time.
"Colleges are aware that midterms and finals are high-stress times for students, and many are trying to offer them support in some way," says Morgan Flood. The art therapy program at Oberlin, for instance, was launched just this month and is designed to help students unwind through painting, drawing, and other creative ventures.
St. Michael's College in Colchester, Vt., also offers a stress-free night during midterms, which includes a session on handling stress, massages, a prize raffle, and snacks. Students can enjoy live jazz in a special relaxing "living room" setting, and a comedian performs in the dining hall afterward. And during finals week at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, the student council runs an old-school-style study break: It features a "PB & J" night when students can enjoy hundreds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and milk. "Students can relax and engage in activities they haven't done since high school," says Stephanie Newsom, director of counseling.
Other colleges let students blow off steam in unconventional ways. At Roanoke College in Salem, Va., campus lore says that students will get good luck by "kicking the post," which is a 3-foot cement marker between two buildings that many students kick before exams in hopes that they will graduate on time. A similar custom takes place at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, where students rub the nose of the statue of a horned frog—TCU's mascot—prior to taking midterms and finals. And at the University of Maryland–College Park, students rub the nose of a statue of Testudo, a diamondback terrapin that is the school's mascot.
The common theme at the heart of the traditions or programs is preventing and overcoming test anxiety. Mike Malmon-Berg, a psychologist and counselor at the College of Wooster in Ohio, says that as many as 20 percent of students report testing anxiety so severe that their performance on exams is adversely affected. But it's clear that colleges are taking steps—in some cases, creative ones—to combat this. "This generation of students is very intense," says Oberlin's Morgan Flood. "They need to learn how to slow down, relax, put it in perspective, and take care of themselves."
If you have a midterm coming up, here are some more nuggets of wisdom from students and staff:
"Do not panic. You might lose a few hours of sleep during midterms week, but it is only for a brief period. Focus on studying—it actually makes the time go faster!"
Charles McElwee, junior at Lebanon Valley College, Annville, Pa.
"Hop, skip, and jump over a few phrases in the text to make sure you can distinguish key points from less essential information."
Beth Boquet, English professor, Fairfield University, Fairfield, Conn.
"You can reduce stress by placing the word 'so' in front of such tormenting questions as 'What if I do poorly?', 'What if I fail the test?', or 'What if my score is low?' This tends to reduce tension and put the significance of the test in perspective."
Mike Malmon-Berg, psychologist and counselor, College of Wooster, Wooster, Ohio
"Study groups are wonderful and effective, if the members involved stay on track with the subject matter."
Brittany Rathbone, sophomore at St. Leo University, St. Leo, Fla.
"Be well rested and well fed. Use your favorite food as both a motivator and a reward!"
Carrie Nolte, alumnus, Fairfield University, Fairfield, Conn.
"Watch your professor's body language and listen to his tone of voice to determine the most important information. If she repeats anything, writes it on the board, or gives you a handout, study it as if it will be on the test."
Cynthia Crimmins, director of the Learning Resource Center at York College of Pennsylvania, York, Pa.
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