How to ace your exams this term

picexam.jpg

It's that time of year again: exams are here and students around the country are busy trying to cram as much information into their brains as they can. Trying to retain several months' worth of information in a stressful situation can be challenging. Science offers some tips, however, on how students can maximize their ability to retain information.

Practice makes perfect - The brain is a marvel to neuroscientists who continue to unravel its mysteries. But some things about our grey matter are fairly well-known. For example, memories are stored as groups of neurons, cells that send impulses throughout our bodies. When we attempt to recall something, the neurons fire in the same pattern as when the original event occurred. Recalling something over and over again strengthens that pathway.

But a new study from Tufts University in Massachusetts found that giving yourself tests, as practice, not only aids in memory recall, but also in reducing stress. Stress makes recalling information more difficult so those who are stressed and utilize practice studying outperform those who simply rely on straight studying. "It was as though they weren't stressed at all," said Ayanna Thomas, associate professor of psychology at Tufts and senior author of the study.  "I would recommend always reviewing your material first … and then give yourself practice tests. Read your notes maybe once or twice and then push them aside and make yourself remember as much as you can," Smith said. "Then go back to check your notes: Did you remember everything? No? Then do it again."

Sleep on it - It seems like an obvious statement: get a good night's rest before a test or exam and you're likely to do better. But it's surprising how many students fail to get enough rest. Brains of people who don't sleep well tend to perform poorly on a memory test. When we're awake we weaken memory connections. If we're awake too long, the connections between neurons (synapses) become saturated. This means we have greater difficulty retaining new information. Sleeping allows our brain to form new connections. So forget the cramming and get a good night's rest. Your synapses need it.

It's all about balance - Schooling is stressful, but it turns out that stress can be useful — if you manage it well enough. The researchers found that happy people improved their grade-point average (GPA) over time. What was more surprising was students who felt stressed from time to time, but managed it well, performed even better. The key to manage stress is to ensure that you continue with the good parts of your life: be social, sleep well, don't skip workouts. "It's a balancing act, it will help you deal with the negative" Erin Barker, professor of psychology at Concordia, says.

And on the day of the exam - 15 tips:
1) Wake up early so that you do not need to rush through having breakfast and getting ready.
2) Check the venue and time of the exam to make sure that you have not confused the day/time/venue.
3) Have a balanced breakfast and eat nothing risky (probably not the best day to have a super-hot curry!). Bananas are always a good option.
4) Before leaving home, check that you have everything that you will need – ID, stationery, map to the exam venue, etc.
5) Head to the exam with plenty of time. A lot of unexpected events can happen on your way there and you do not want to be late!
6) If there are people around who are panicking, avoid them. They are not doing you any favour!
7) Go to the toilet before the exam starts. Exams can be quite long and there is no time to waste.
8) Remember to write your name on the exam paper. You would not believe how many people have forgotten to do it!
9) Read all the questions carefully before starting and quickly plan how much time to allocate to each.
10) Start answering the questions that you feel most confident about. There is no need to answer the questions in order.
11) If your brain freezes, just start writing anything and you will soon start remembering more details.
12) Don’t spend more time than you planned on a particular section/question or you might run out of time to answer other questions and gain those extra marks! Also,  leave any questions that you are unsure about for the end.
13) Don’t be afraid to ask the examiner if you are not clear on a question.
14) Use every minute of the exam and if you have time left, review your answers before handing back the paper.
15) Stay calm, you have done your homework and have nothing to fear!

More info: CBC - Exams studying tips