The case of not studying for finals

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I think the most dangerous advice someone gave me was two weeks before finals in junior year of high school, when I was told to get my mind off academics and watch a show or two on Netflix. Before I knew it, I had binged two seasons of Lucifer — 31 episodes in total — within three days. Not a second during that time did the thought of studying even cross my mind, let alone the impending doom that finals were fast approaching.

Ever since high school, once finals began to assume higher stakes, I began this perennial cycle that I have curiously dubbed the “I’m going to do everything but study for my finals” phase of the semester. It goes like this: I’ll sit down at my desk once again for the sixth time of the day to review my notes on linear programming. Not even minutes pass and I find myself reorganizing my cables, bothering my cat or trying to beat my best typing speed on Monkeytype. Just opening the problem set in front of me fills me with such existential dread that I push it off until I’m so overwhelmingly busy that I don’t have time to procrastinate anymore.

It takes days for me to get myself to follow a study routine, and even then, I only abide by it a few days before the exam. If you do a simple search on Google for finals studying tips, there will be a plethora of guides that chant the same mantra: start studying early, sleep well, remove distractions and take breaks. But honestly, these only work to an extent for me. Sometimes I just won’t have the motivation to pursue such a rigid studying routine because that task just seems so daunting. Even if I do find the will to study, not even weeks before the exam, instructors seem to give out every last-minute assignment imaginable. And that’s in addition to the sheer amount of content that is delivered and must be reviewed in these final weeks. Maybe I wouldn’t be so overwhelmed if each day had 25 hours.

But I think the dread of finals is about a little more than lack of time. Now that I am older, I’m beginning to grasp why studying so furiously for these final exams fills me with such existential dread. This notion of memorizing as much information as you possibly can, instead of fully, deeply understanding and absorbing it, seems almost like a clandestine affair with education to me. There is simply an obscene amount of information that must be digested and regurgitated for exams, and I always feel like a part of me is cramming, no matter how much lead time I give myself. I’m memorizing algorithms, runtimes, edge cases and diagrams, but am I actually understanding these concepts?

It often seems rote memorization has become the new culture within higher education, particularly in certain STEM fields. There is some merit to such a style of learning when it comes to foundational knowledge. We can memorize grammar rules, multiplication tables and Supreme Court cases, but the benefits of rote memorization, in my opinion, end there. 

At UC Berkeley, I often feel like I’m doing my education a disservice. I fear that the five-figure tuition I pay goes toward this surface-level understanding of all these different paradigms and disciplines that are taught. I’m doing what’s being told to me because I want good grades: good grades mean a higher GPA; a higher GPA means better internships; better internships mean better job offers; better job offers mean better money. By then, your life is set, and you’re well on your way to becoming successful and having a happy life. Or maybe this is just the mentality I’ve grown up with and been taught to think within, because that’s the vision I associated with success as a cheeky little kid.

Some professors recognize the unsustainability and inefficiency of this culture in higher education. I remember an office hours session I attended during my freshman year. I was asking my head professor if she had any tips for studying for college finals. My professor acknowledged that due to the major competition and overall student body, the notion of “parrot-learning” was more prevalent than the course staff was comfortable with. She told me to stop fixating on getting a good grade and instead focus on finding related problems that I couldn’t solve: there will always be more material to process and master.

It takes something more than sheer will and dedication to attend office hours or do extended readings, but I’m trying my hardest to break away from the rote learning mindset and milk my time here at UC Berkeley — to make the most of my education while I’m here. Because even though I want to make bucket loads of money, I also want to learn skills and gain knowledge that will allow me to help advance the human condition. I want to truly learn and soak up the world-class education that I came here for.

Contact Ekansh Agrawal at [email protected].