At SouthLake Christian Academy, students will soon be taking exams, that bi-annual rite of passage that creates fear and loathing in the minds of students and parents alike. But fear not! Exams do not have to be miserable experiences. There is a wealth of learning research to help students prepare better and dislike the experience less. Here are a few research-based pointers to assist and to keep things in perspective.

1. Eliminate distractions. Contrary to popular belief, multitasking is a myth. Neuroscientists know that the brain cannot perform many high-level cognitive functions simultaneously. Rather, the neocortex switches between tasks as called upon to do so. Task switching wastes time and increases the likelihood of errors. The brain is less efficient at reorienting to a new task than it is at attending to the one at hand. So take 15 minutes to get organized, eliminate clutter, shut down screens, steer clear of noise, minimize social interaction, and then get down to business.

2. Study harder AND smarter. More time spent studying does not always translate directly to higher grades on exams. Proper preparation requires both memory consolidation (knowing the subject matter) and deep processing (the ability to make meaningful connections, solve problems, and think critically about the material). Exam prep often involves flash cards and study guides, tools useful for rote memorization. For deeper learning, however, try creating concept maps to make connections between concepts and help you understand why a particular fact is true and why it matters. Of course, both memorization and deep learning take time, so spread your study sessions out over a few days and give your brain the repetition it needs to absorb and process the material.

3. Sleep well. Studies show that REM sleep is necessary for information acquisition (receiving), consolidation (keeping), and recall (retrieving). Students deprived of REM sleep show deficits in short-term and long-term memory, and decreased problem solving abilities. Sleep deprivation also elevates stress and anxiety levels (as measured by perception and biochemical markers) and deteriorates overall performance. In other words, students who study over time with good sleep will outperform those who use all-night cram sessions for last minute preparation.

4. Take strategic study breaks. Although the brain makes up about 2% of a person’s body weight, it accounts for up to 20% of the body’s energy use. Intense studying is among our most exhausting tasks, so take breaks. Schedule study time to include periodic short intervals of rest. For younger students, study sessions may last 30 minutes followed by a 15 minute break.  For older students, a 50 minute study session followed by at 10 minute break may suffice. Students with learning differences may need additional rest. Strategic rest will help with cognitive endurance and allow you to study longer and better over the long haul.

5. Ask for help. Some students will struggle for hours on their own to avoid asking for help. Self-reliance is commendable to a point, but as exam time approaches, be quicker to ask for help. Compile questions that you need answered and email a teacher or speak to him/her during a free period of the day. Friends can help too. Group study sessions, used sparingly, can be helpful for content-intensive subjects if you keep needless socializing to a minimum. Practice teaching others the material. Verbal processing with others can help you know how well you know the material.

6. Avoid excessive caffeine and sugar. Studies show that while caffeine can improve alertness and the performance of some motor tasks in fatigued individuals, it does not improve memory or deep processing. In excess, caffeine can increase anxiety and thereby decrease one’s ability to absorb and recall information. As to sugar, the brain needs it to function, but not the simple processed sugars found in candy bars and energy drinks. The glucose that is found in fruits and complex carbohydrates does improve brain function. Save the junk food for a post exam celebration.

7. Keep it all in perspectives. When I taught at the university level, I always gave my students the following speech prior to the start of an exam: “This exam is important but it is not the most important thing in your life. Your identity as a person is not determined by the outcome of this exam. You are no better a human being if you make an A on this test, and no worse a human being if you fail it. Your identity is NOT determined by your performance. You are a person created in God’s image, loved by God, and redeemed by Christ. Nothing that happens in this life can change that, especially not an exam. So relax, do your best, and move on. I love you, I’m rooting for you, and you’re going to be OK.”

I do. I am. And you are.

Go Eagles!


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