If you’re like most students, you start thinking about finals a week or two before the end of the semester. That means you have to a) review a lot of material, b) that you first covered weeks or months ago, c) in a very short amount of time. Enter the all-nighters, the crying jags, and the emotional shutdowns, all very natural responses to such stressful circumstances.

What if we told you there was a better way? That you could prepare for exams without going into crisis mode? The weeks before finals will always be a challenge, but they don’t have to mean out-of-control stress and anxiety.

We’d like to introduce you to the Signet method of studying. Read on, and we’ll break it down into eight simple steps. (For more detail on this method, check out these presentation slides.)

The Signet Method

1. Study throughout the semester. This is critical to reducing end-of-semester stress. If you fully learn concepts and organize materials over the entire semester, you’ll significantly reduce the need to cram right before the exam. The best way to do this is to take a short amount of time each week to review concepts from previous weeks. It’s much easier to refresh something before it fades from short-term memory than to re-learn it at the end of the semester.

2. Realize studying effectively is a repeatable process. Studying is not magical or mysterious. It is a process with a beginning, middle, and end. Not only that, but the basic process of studying is applicable to all courses, regardless of subject, and can even be adapted for projects and papers. By repeating the process over and over, effective studying will start to become a natural part of your academic habits.

3. Create a study plan as soon as an exam is assigned. The best study plan starts with understanding what you’ll be responsible for on the test, which means gathering info from classmates and teachers on both the content and format of the exam. This will help you determine what materials and strategies to use, as well as what study schedule will be most effective.

4. Build a mega study guide. Before diving into practice problems or re-reading the textbook, use your understanding of the exam to identify specific materials you need to learn, then corral those materials into one place. This mega guide then becomes the single resource that you use for the rest of your studying. By doing this, you get clear about exactly what you need in order to be prepared and avoid distractions during your actual studying.

5. Break learning down into discrete tasks, and schedule them. In this step, break your overall study plan into smaller tasks, then schedule those tasks into your calendar to make sure they get completed. All items on your schedule should be “actionable”—something you can take specific action on. “Study for chemistry test” is a broad, vague directive, while “read and annotate study notes from chapters 1-2 of chemistry book” is specific enough to be actionable. Try to match the amount of work planned with the amount of time allocated for studying, so you’re setting realistic expectations for yourself. This may be challenging at first, but it is a skill that improves with practice.

6. Allocate specific time to study for the exam. Short, regular bursts of studying are preferable to not studying for weeks and then blocking off an entire day to learn everything. You can study daily, a few days a week, exclusively on the weekends, or in some other format that works for you. Study sessions of one to two hours are ideal, as studying in this way improves retention and learning, and may reduce the overall study time required

7. Stick to the plan. While this is probably the most straightforward tip, it’s not necessarily the easiest one! You can create a checklist to track when you’ve completed each piece of your study plan, or enlist an accountability partner (study buddy, parent, or coach) to help you stay on track.

8. After the exam, reflect. Since studying is a repeatable process, every new cycle of studying should be more refined than the last. After your final (or other big exam), spend some time looking back on the entire study experience, identifying things that went well and areas where you could improve. Maybe you over- or under-studied; maybe you didn’t schedule enough time to cover all the material. Possibly you accurately determined what content would be on the exam, or maybe there were missing elements you’ll know to include for next time. Incorporate what you uncover in your reflections into the next iteration of the study process.

If we could distill these tips down into just one piece of advice, it would be this: preparing for finals starts at the beginning of the semester, not the end. If you have any questions about this process, or if you could use some extra help with your studying, we’re here to help! Drop us a line to learn how working with a coach can help you improve your study skills and build a personalized study plan.

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