Over the ten years, I’ve been a university GP, I’ve seen many students sitting exams. It can be a tense time and below are some of the hacks that students have told me have worked for them. I see revision as a kind of training – more of a marathon than a sprint. Sitting exams and revision does seem to get easier and more familiar with practice.
Stress can affect sleep as sleep comes when we feel safe and can let go. Around exam time, the head can feel busy with thoughts playing through the mind. A regular mindfulness practice e.g. Calm or Headspace apps can really help decompress the active mind. Keep a regular sleep routine so that your body gets used to it and avoid napping during the day. I’d suggest avoiding the use of sleeping tablets around exam time as they can affect cognitive performance and memory in subtle ways. Pause is really helpful app that some of my students have found helpful https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/techcrunch.com/2015/10/08/pause-ustwo/amp/. It’s best used a couple of hours before bedtime as the blue light from screens in the hour before sleep can keep us awake.
It’s really tempting to spend long hours in front of books and screens chalking up the revision hours. As humans we are not really designed to be stationary for this long and I quite frequently see students in the surgery with muscular neck and back pains from sitting. I think the record for one was 8 hours without moving! Long hours in front of screens also can reduce the blink rate of the eyes increasing the chance of eye irritation. If the eyes start to become irritated, lubricating eye drops can be purchased from most pharmacies. Any red eye pain or visual disturbance should be discussed with a optician or medical professional.
We seem to work better when we take frequent breaks to move and rest our minds temporarily. A fantastic resource is the work of Francesco Cirillo and his Pomodoro technique https://francescocirillo.com/pages/pomodoro-technique. Basically the idea is that you pick your task and work on it without interruption for 25 minutes (set a timer). The 25 minutes is one pomodoro. Then have a five minute break before starting on the next 25 minute pomodoro. After four of these, have a longer break 20-30 minutes. These tests allow the brain to rest and assimilate the new information.
Eating and drinking
Working brains need nutrition and central to this is adequate hydration. The body is comprised of 50-60% water https://www.livestrong.com/article/340756-healthy-body-water-percentage/ and so drinking plenty of water is important. The amount recommended per day is around eight x eight ounce glasses or two litres of water. There are some studies that suggest that mild dehydration can affect cognitive performance https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-much-water-should-you-drink-per-day. Eating little and often (5/6 meals per day)seems to work best as large meals can make us feel sluggish and bloated. The same goes for high fat/sugar foods such as pastries and cakes. It’s better to stick to proteins from lean meats/fruits and grains and snack on healthier snacks like dried fruits and grains https://www.schooldays.ie/articles/5-tips-for-healthy-eating-when-studying. Caffeine is a bit of a double edged sword and many of my students swear by it for improving concentration. I’d suggest keeping it to a minimum (max 1-2 cups / day) as it can make people feel jittery and anxious. Try to avoid drinking it after midday as this may hinder sleep.
Schedule time for connection and play
Humans are social creatures and are meant to be in connections with other humans https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/social_connection/definition#what-is. Prolonged periods in isolation while revising affects us and I have come across students experiencing quite profound drops in mood because they have not caught up with their family and friends and have let their leisure activities and hobbies go by the wayside. It is often necessary to cut back on some commitments but scheduling time for meals out and social gatherings can be really helpful. Studying in a group or with friends is also a useful antidote to isolation. Face to face connection seems to be the most helpful as opposed to interacting on social media. Spending time outdoors in nature appears to have significant health benefits http://www.bbc.co.uk/earth/story/20160420-how-nature-is-good-for-our-health-and-happiness
Dr Lizzie Croton GP