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How to ace your exams

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Living Well writer, Amy Hamilton Chadwick, gets some great study and exam advice from Jenny Wilson – a secondary school teacher and study skills tutor at Rangitoto College in Auckland – and Emily Hope of Hope Nutrition.

Manage your time

When you’re organised, studying doesn’t have to prevent you from doing the things you love.
Jenny says it’s crucial to create a study planner. You can find some good ones online.

The night before – sleep or study?

A last-minute all-night cram session will undermine your learning and performance. Even one night of
missed sleep increases your anxiety and reduces your recall – sleep helps us build memories. A better approach the night before is to review the most important points before going to sleep. This enables consolidation of what you’ve learned and a sharper, less anxious mind in the morning.

Keep it short

Keep your study sessions bite-sized – 20 to 30 minutes long, with five-minute breaks in-between. Short sessions are more effective, because the information you’re most likely to retain is what you studied at the beginning and end of each session. 

Go digital

Technology can be a powerful study aid, says Jenny. Try:

  • YouTube: Watch a YouTube video about your study subject then write it down in your own words.
  • Smartphone: Make a film about your study topic, combining visual and audio methods to embed your material more firmly. When you watch your video, you’re consolidating that learning.
  • Slideshows: Jenny encourages students to produce slideshows with voiceovers, which also reinforce the lesson by mixing audio and written media. Google Drive lets students share their slideshows and learn from each others’ work.
  • Quizlet.com: Quizlet features free study tools including quizzes, flash cards and interactive games. Reviewing what you’ve learned with mini-tests is a highly effective study method.

Brain food

Avoid chocolate, coffee and energy drinks before a test – the sugar and caffeine are likely to make you restless, says New Zealand registered nutritionist Emily Hope of Hope Nutrition. Plus, you’ll have a blood sugar spike, followed by a crash that will leave you feeling flat halfway through the exam. “A good pre-exam snack would be wholegrain toast with nut butter and a glass of milk,” she says. If you’re going to take a snack in with you, opt for a banana, pottle of yoghurt or ‘bliss ball’ made from dried fruit, nuts and seeds.

“For breakfast on exam day, try oats and blueberries with yoghurt, milk and nuts,” Emily says. That hits all the important brain foods: slow-release carbohydrates, protein to keep you full, and healthy fats to boost brain performance. A lighter option is a smoothie with banana, milk, berries, nuts and seeds.

Add in exercise

Exercise has been shown to have positive memory boosting effects, as it increases blood flow to the brain and helps you stay alert. Use your time in-between study to practice a little yoga or pilates.

Mix up where you study

One of the myths about studying is that one quiet, calm environment is the ideal place to learn. In fact, moving to a new space helps strengthen the links between your brain and the material you’re studying. “It’s okay to study in the lounge, then the bedroom, then the park,” says Jenny. “As long as the information is right, you’re better to move around.” Mixing up your subjects also helps to embed your studies – it keeps your brain nimble and alert.