Tue, 19 Nov 2019

3 things to help improve your exam results (besides studying)

The Conversation
23 Oct 2019, 09:19 GMT+10

If you want to get good marks in your exams, there's no substitute for study. So do past exams, go over your notes, read what you need to read, do the problems, ask for help - study!

But other things have a proven effect on exam marks too. Here are three of them.

1. Sleep

Guidelines for 13-to-17-year-olds advise eight to ten hours of uninterrupted sleep per night. But studies show teenagers' sleep is more fragmented during stressful periods, such as exam times.

Studies also suggest fewer than 10% of college students get the recommended eight to nine hours of sleep during exam week. This is a problem because sleep is especially important during the study period.

Laboratory studies show new knowledge becomes integrated with what we already know while we sleep. Not getting enough sleep before an exam will leave you less able to recall what you've learnt, not to mention just being groggy.

A 2014 German study found students who got seven hours or more of good sleep during the exam period performed much better (their scores were around 10% higher) than those who had slept less.

Good-quality sleep, as described in the paper, is essentially sleep where you feel rested afterwards. Researchers often use the validated Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Indicator (PSQI) to assess the quality of sleep - you can use it to check how you're tracking.

Read more: Studying for exams? Here's how to make your memory work for you

In another study, a US professor challenged his students (by offering them extra grades) to sleep an average of 8.5 hours a night during the exam period.

While 24 students opted in to the challenge, only 17 succeeded. Students who slept more than eight hours on the night of the final exam performed better than students who opted out or slept less than eight hours.

The professor controlled for previous grades - meaning he took into account the students' previous levels of achievement in exams when calculating the results - so it's not just that the ones who scored better were smarter anyway.

2. Exercise

Research suggests regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart and sweat glands pumping, can boost the size of the hippocampus, which is the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning.

A 2012 Australian study found primary school students who exercised regularly were more likely to have higher NAPLAN scores in numeracy and writing. And a US study showed a child's fitness was associated with a higher academic score - so the better the fitness, the higher they scored on tests.

A 2009 study showed a positive correlation between aerobic fitness and cognitive performance in male teenagers. That is, as fitness increases so do logical, verbal, technical and overall intelligence scores.

Overall exercise is good because it improves mood and helps to lower stress, both of which help with study and concentration.

3. Take responsibility

Our research shows when students take responsibility for their learning they are more engaged and motivated to succeed. Taking responsibility means finding what interests you and incorporating that into your study routine.

Ask yourself: what will help me study like I mean it? And then get creative.

If exercise motivates you, then study while exercising. If your friends motivate you, review and summarise your notes in groups. If technology motivates you, use it.

Do you like drawing? If so, you can use multiple representations of problems - like words, equations, graphs, tables and diagrams - to help you understand a particular concept.

Read more: Don't calm down! Exam stress may not be fun but it can help you get better marks

And don't just read and review, but also practise skills. You will likely be asked to talk about some skills in your exams, such as identifying risks, writing a hypothesis or doing some calculations. Having a good working knowledge of these skills, rather than simply remembering how they go, is an advantage.

So, if you want to learn how to conduct an experiment, do some experimentation. If you want to get good at comprehension, do some comprehension.

Try to enjoy yourself, because the more you care about something, the better you'll do at it. Exercising and sleeping well will also put you in a better mood and help you enjoy the process.

Author: Tom Gordon - PhD candidate. Sydney University Physics Education Research (SUPER) group, University of Sydney The Conversation

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