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Psychological Advice on Exam PreparationShow content
As exam season approaches, students across Northern Ireland will soon start to prepare for GCSEs, A-level and university examinations. However, many students either do not know how to study or engage in ineffective strategies which hinder them from reaching their potential. Research has shown that some promoted study techniques, such as focusing on a single subject for long periods of time or studying in the same place, does not help with long-term memory retrieval. Using psychological research, the DECP NI recommends the following 10 strategies for students to prepare for their exams.
A positive frame of mind
Preparing for exams will take time, be prepared for this and plan accordingly. Know that there will be occasions when your revision will not go to plan due to not being in the right ‘mood’ or things occurring in life outwith your control. Mentally preparing for these instances will help you cope and ‘bounce back’ after this occurs. By being in the right frame of mind before studying will help you actively engage with the learning material, and to not just go through the motions of studying. Individuals using social media tend to promote a desired self-image. Reading updates on social media as to how well or not well someone is studying can have a negative impact on your thinking/feelings. It may make you more prone to engage in negative thought cycles e.g. “I’m not studying enough” or “I am doing just as bad as them”. Take a social media break or really restrict your usage on the lead up to and the day of the exams.
A large proportion of the body’s resources are directed to the brain, consuming over 25% of the body’s glucose despite being only 2% of the body’s mass. Therefore, it is important to take a break every hour so that the brain can rest.This break allows the brain to continue processing the new learning material without being overloaded with multitasking between storing and processing simultaneously.
Learn it, not just read it.
Some students simply re-read the learning material in the hope that it might ‘stick’.However, in we are teaching our brains to recognise the answer, rather than recall the answer, which two different processes.For example, when you listen to a song you may sing along and appear to know all the words.However, when you only have the backing track you may find yourself struggling to sing along.This is because you have trained your brain to recognise the lyrics and not to recall them.Evidence has shown that a more effective way to learn is to repeatedly self-test and what you are learning, this is known as the ‘testing effect’. Retrieval practice can boost memory, therefore, instead of recognising the answer, your brain is recalling the answer.Put learning material into your own words, test it, retrieve it, rehearse it.
When we feel stressed and anxious, we tend to breathe more quickly. Slowing down our breathing can help the body change its physiological responses and ‘reset’ the body back to a calmer state. Self-care is important to managing stress anxiety. Try to eat healthily, drink lots of water, take part in activities you enjoy, socialise, go out into nature, and/or exercise. Being kind to yourself will help the body to decrease those stress hormones, which helps reduce your feelings of anxiety and stress, and increase your ability to actively engage with the learning material.
Mistakes are good!
Psychological research has shown that making near-miss guesses, mistakes or errors can actually help with memory retrieval, acting like a prompt to the correct answer. However, if these guesses, mistakes or errors are not close to the right answer, they can hinder learning. Therefore, do not be disheartened when you are self-testing and you don’t get the right answer. If you are ‘close’ to it but just need to fine tune, making these guesses/mistakes will still help you retrieve the correct information in the exam. And if you were not ‘close’ to the right answer, don’t panic, just put in some more time into the ‘testing effect’ for that area, as you have learnt by recognising information not recalling.
Notice the signs
Stress is a natural human response which evolved as a survival and is often referred to as the ‘flight/fight/freeze’ response.Stress responses at the right levels can enhance a person’s performance, yet, we are not built to sustain long periods or overloading levels of stress.Research shows that if we do not keep stress levels in check, it may have a negative impact on our physical and mental health and on our ability to learn new material.Stress signs will vary from person to person - get to know yours.Some people may behave differently than usual. This may include not being able to concentrate on activities you usually enjoy, feeling restless, avoiding people, becoming hypersensitive to touch or noise, loss of appetite, overeating, difficulties sleeping, over-sleeping, or eating unhealthy foods.Some people may have physical reactions to feeling stressed.They may feel their heart beating faster, changes in their body temperature, headaches, increased muscle tension, feeling tearful, and/or feeling sick.Others may find themselves thinking more negatively about themselves e.g. “I’m not good enough”.Get to know your stress signs and take action when they appear.
Every organ in the human body produces waste which needs to be cleared.The brain is no exception.Research has shown that this ‘cleaning’ process appears to only occur when we are asleep.This is why we find it hard to think when we have not had enough sleep; our brain has not been ‘cleaned’ properly.Not enough sleep can result in poor attention/concentration, poor processing and retrieval of learning material, and poor skills. Put to bed those all night cramming sessions and make sure you schedule in between 8-10 hours of sleep for teenagers and 7-9 hours for young adults.
Spacing it out and mix it up!
Research has repeatedly shown that cramming before an exam does not help you remember what you are learning. Spacing out studying can allow you to ‘forget’, which a good thing! When you go back to revise the learning material, you are strengthening the distant memory of what you had learned, making it easier for you to recall each time. Mixing up the order you learn helps you engage more with the information and you process it in a different way compared to when you learn in the same order. Both spacing and mixing up the learning material helps you to recall the information rather than recognising it.
Studying starts in the classroom!
Actively engaging with the learning material within the classroom can help you learn and understand what is being taught. Asking the 5W questions (who/what/when/where/why) moves you from being the recipient of information (a passive learner) to engaging with the material (an active learner). Actively learning and linking the material to previously learnt information, life experience, or a visual (as we are visual beings), can increase your ability to recall the information under stressful situations - exams!
Use multiple methods
Research shows that the more regions of the brain that are used to process and store information learned about a specific topic/concept results in higher interconnectivity.This leads to deeper processing of the information being learned and increases the chances of the information being recalled.Use colour when writing out notes, chunk information into ‘themes’, link information to something you already know, use acrostics (e.g. Mathematical operations:Multiply and Divide before you Add and Subtract), use acronyms (e.g.NASA: National Aeronautics and Space Administration.), and make use of different media (especially for those who have difficulties with reading).Also, remember we are social beings, therefore, studying with friends or family (in person or through video calls) can also help us to learn and process information more deeply than on our own, especially if you are explaining a topic or concept unknown to the other person.