Research-backed tips to help you work smarter, not harder this finals season

By Katharine Kocik

The last finals season of the decade is approaching, and whether it’s your first set of finals or last, it can be a stressful time. Here are some tips backed by recent research to help you survive the next few weeks.

Sleep – you’ve likely heard it before, and for good reason. Research consistently links better sleep quality, duration, and consistency with better academic performance. One recent nature paper found that factors related to sleep accounted for approximately 25% of variation in academic scores (1)! Although it’s easy to sacrifice sleep for more study time, knowing it can affect performance to this degree may encourage you to give it greater priority during finals. Anxiety is a serious challenge for many students while studying for finals, and research indicates that getting enough sleep can help to keep anxiety levels down. One study showed that even small increases in sleep duration lowered anxiety during the day, making it worth your time to sleep a little more for your well-being during a stressful time at school (2).

If you’re not getting enough sleep at night, research indicates that taking a nap can improve memory recall. A 2019 nature study looked at how different sleep patterns impacted chronically sleep-deprived high school students (3). Interestingly, students that “split” their sleep into a period of 5 hours at night and a 90 minute nap at 2:00pm performed better at memory tests than students that slept the same amount of time, 6.5 hours, all in the same period at night.

Don’t be afraid to shift your schedule to what naturally works best for you. A study of Seattle high school students in 2018 revealed that delaying school start times by an hour reduced sleepiness and improved academic performance (4). Fortunately, you can make your own schedule, so if you work better by waking up later and going to bed later, it may be better to lean into it rather than forcing yourself to wake up earlier than what is natural. McLennan Library is open 24 hours during finals, as well as Burnside for Science/Arts & Science students, and the Tim Hortons on Sherbrooke and University is always open (and also so much less busy at non-peak hours) for your coffee and snack needs. Just make sure to account for the time of your final!

In terms of mindset while studying, a study looked at students’ strategies for persevering through a task and identified a few mindsets correlated with success in completing challenges (5). Although it may be intuitive, it’s helpful to know what is shown to be effective for other students. The first of three strategies is “Emotional Regulation”, or maintaining a positive mood while working. This involved mentally reminding oneself to stay positive, if not taking other steps to stay in a good mood, like taking a break or studying with friends. Two other mindsets are thinking about completion being near, and thinking about the positive consequences of completing the task. For the former strategy, an example is reminding oneself that only finals remain after a semester of hard work, and for the latter, thinking about improving grades. A final strategy is keeping track of one’s progress towards a goal, by breaking a challenge into multiple steps and tracking completion of each part one-by-one.

Although research is a powerful tool in predicting if a lifestyle shift or new strategy might be effective, it’s also important to consider what is tried and true for yourself–you know yourself better than anyone else. If something isn’t working, though, it may be time to try something new, and research can help point towards what could make a difference

Best of luck this finals season!


  1. Okano, K., Kaczmarzyk, J.R., Dave, N. et al. Sleep quality, duration, and consistency are associated with better academic performance in college students. npj Sci. Learn. 4, 16 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41539-019-0055-z
  2. Cousins, J.N., Rijn, E., Ong, J.L. et al. Does splitting sleep improve long-term memory in chronically sleep deprived adolescents?. npj Sci. Learn. 4, 8 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41539-019-0047-z
  3. Ben Simon, E., Rossi, A., Harvey, A.G. et al. Overanxious and underslept. Nat Hum Behav (2019) doi:10.1038/s41562-019-0754-8
  4. Dunster, G.P., De La Iglesia, L, Ben-Hamo, M., et al. Sleepmore in Seattle: Later school start times are associated with more sleep and better performance in high school students. Science Advances. 4, 12 (2018) doi:10.1126/sciadv.aau6200
  5. Hennecke, M., Czikmantori, T., and Brandstätter, V. ( 2019) Doing Despite Disliking: Self‐regulatory Strategies in Everyday Aversive Activities. J. Pers., 33: 104– 128.


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