Studying for exams is inevitably a stressful time. While a degree of nerves is to be expected – and can indeed prove beneficial – reports of heightened anxiety and stress amongst GCSE students in particular have led to increasing concerns from teaching bodies.
This year’s Year 11 students are the first real cohort to face the challenges of the sweeping changes to the exam structure and mark scheme across a wide range of subjects, and teachers and other teaching professionals fear that middle to low ability students and those with additional needs, especially dyslexia, will be particularly badly affected, resulting in poor exam performance.
As a paediatric psychotherapist who works with schools and individuals both in person and online to better manage anxiety and build confidence in the build up to exams, I would urge education professionals to treat mental preparation with the same importance as academic preparation – and begin focusing on their students’ mental wellbeing at the start of the academic year with some basic revision advice.
Variety is key
One of the most important things students need to know when revising is perhaps also the most simple: use variety. Memory is like a muscle, the more you work it (and in a variety of ways) the stronger it gets. Research shows learning is often context dependent, and the best way for students to embed information when revising for exams, is to vary the environments they study in. Essentially, the more places in which they revise, the more likely they are to recall that information; in the car, at the kitchen table, at their desks, in the garden – the more they move their study place around, the more they will retain.
They should vary the ways they revise, too. The old way to study was to copy out notes, condense them, and copy them out again, and again, in the hope they would ‘stick’. While this is still often the preferred method for those of us who like words (readers and writers), the majority of learners need a mix of revision techniques to really embed the information in their memory.
As with revising in multiple environments, utilising multiple ways to study further increases memory and retrieval: arranging learning in new formats e.g. post-it notes; group discussion; flashcards; mind maps; audio recordings; watching Ted Talks, YouTube science demonstration and movies of books; speaking it out loud; teaching the information and using study apps are just a few of the ways students can vary their revision and boost retention – which also makes studying considerably more appealing for young people!
This young generation undoubtedly loves screens – and there are countless apps that really motivate students to revise whilst also ticking the boxes with regards to maximising their different learning styles. With Quizlet and StudyBlue, for example, you have mobile flashcards, study guides, and quizzes, or you can choose from an extensive collection of student-authored flashcards and flashcard decks. I am also increasingly recommending GCSEPod to the schools, parents and students that I work with; not only does the audio visual content, presented in short sharp bursts, meet the needs of all kinds of preferred learning styles but the online format, accessible on any desktop or mobile device, appeals to today’s digital natives and naturally encourages students to vary how, when and where they study.
Keep it short
Overwhelming research points to 30 minutes as the optimum study framework for memory retention. Many students are spending hours and hours continually revising, when a concentrated 30-minute study spurt, followed by a short break and then 5-10 minutes spent recapping what they have studied, and consolidating it, works best. Then they should take a longer break, before moving on to a different subject. It is really important that students mix up their study and don’t focus solely on one discipline; each time you start a new subject your brain has to ‘re-load’ – really working that memory muscle.”
Use your nose
Yes, really! Students really should be encouraged to use their olfactory senses when it comes to study – peppermint oil in particular, as there is much research to show how peppermint stimulates the Hippocampus region of the brain, which is the area responsible for laying down long-term memory. However, the scent needs to be agreeable with the individual student so if they don’t like peppermint encourage them to try something else – such as orange, or perhaps a favourite perfume. Identifying a preferred scent can help to create an ‘anchor’ for the student which reminds them of focus and concentration.
Confidence is probably one of the most important factors in exam performance – and I firmly believe that it’s something we can all learn. Everyone, even those of us with very low self-esteem, will have experienced feeling confident at some point, however briefly. Being taught how to access and recall these confident feelings, as well as having the tools to relax and focus the mind (mindfulness) and improve concentration, will without a doubt help students achieve their full potential in a test situation.
When it comes to exams, our young people need to know that luck has no role to play. We now know so much more about how the brain functions and how memory works, and it is essential that we use this information to help students to take control of their own learning. Instilling confidence and a sense of feeling fully prepared will help protect their mental health and wellbeing and, it can be hoped, avoid the unnecessary stress and anxiety that so many young people now feel.
About the author
Jo Wallis is a mindfulness trainer and also a registered hypnotherapist and can be contacted at successtechniques.co.uk