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How to manage exam season: don’t forget to take regular breaks and breathe

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Around Australia, Year 12 students are heading into the final stretch of study before exams start in early term 4. This is typically seen as a very intense period of preparation. But, as our research shows, it is also important to rest during this time if you want to maximise your performance.

Intuitively, we understand breaks are important. We can take rest breaks across different times in our lives. They include sabbaticalsgap years and holidays, weekends and nightly sleep.

But rest breaks can be beneficial on even shorter time frames, during study sessions and even during exams themselves.

Firstly, try and get some sleep

Students may be tempted to stay up late, trying to cram for an exam the following day. The big risk here is that lack of sleep can do more harm than good.

Sleep plays an important role in a range of brain functions, including maintaining attention and consolidating memories. So getting a poor night of sleep before an exam may mean the topics you’ve tried to cram aren’t well-formed in your long-term memory. Even if they were, the brain fog from lack of sleep means you may not recall what you’ve learned under the pressure of exam conditions.

In the lead-up to your exams, here are some specific things to consider:

  • try and keep all screens out of the bedroom: people often struggle with sleep because they’re tempted to check their phone at bedtime.
  • screens also emit blue light: this can interfere with your body’s circadian rhythms. Blue light during the day enhances attention, but too much of it in the evening can interfere with sleep quality.
  • so don’t use a smartphone as an alarm: get an old-fashioned alarm clock instead.

For more information about sleep, the Sleep Health Foundation has specific advice for high school students.

You need study breaks

When we study, we’re using our working memory (processing of small amounts of information, needed for things like comprehension and problem-solving). This builds our understanding of a topic. We then want to encode that understanding into long-term memory for use later, such as in an exam.

Without breaks, over time, these working memory resources become depleted and we notice it’s harder and harder to concentrate.

In our 2023 study, we found that a short (five minute) break following a period of difficult cognitive work (solving mental arithmetic problems) made a substantial difference to how much students learned during a lesson on a mental mathematics strategy.

Students who took a “do nothing” break performed 40% better than the no-break students on a subsequent test. Students who watched a first-person perspective video of a walk in an Australian rainforest for five minutes also performed better (57%) than the no-break students.

This suggests building in short rest breaks during study can help you learn.

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