Surviving the Examination Period

Carrie Carson, MA in Counselling Psychology, co

Surviving the “dreaded” exam period is no easy task for student’s, let alone their support network. There is no doubt that we want our children to succeed, which we assume means to study, study, study. Current research, however, is suggesting that although studying is a major piece of the puzzle, there are other important areas that we need to be aware of that add to the academic success of our children.  

Exam Details

First and foremost, knowing the details of your exam is imperative. While this seems obvious to us as adults, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the adolescent brain which controls judgment and planning (among many other skills) is undergoing quite a number of changes during adolescence. Ultimately these changes have the ability to make one “functionally smarter” but it also suggests that students have the ability to learn new skills which promote academic success. As such, it is important that we begin to teach our children how to organize themselves and time manage for exams. Here is a link to an article on teenage brain development should you be interested in reading further.

When it comes to the exam period, students seem to become flustered as their sense of schedule has become disrupted. Often times I will talk to my students about exams and to my surprise, the response is “Ms., I have no idea… My parents have it on their calendar”. As a school professional, this is not acceptable. While parents should absolutely be involved and essentially be the backup center when children are feeling overwhelmed or disorganized, children need to take responsibility by writing down the details so that they become the driver in their success (this will also help their brain develop important planning skills and executive function skills). This doesn’t mean that we don’t help them, but learning this skill and teaching them young, has benefits far beyond academics.

So which exam details are important to keep in mind? While basic details such as date, time, location, and which materials to bring is essential, knowing the kind of exam you are preparing for is key. Is the exam multiple choice or is it essay format? Will you need to remember dates, formulas, or other specific content? Knowing this information ahead of time allows for the opportunity to plan ahead. For instance, making a math memory aid is a tool commonly used to organize mathematical information that can then serve to remind the brain of the learned information. Additionally, students studying their history material can take the time to create review sheets that have visual timelines which make it easier to remember or create acronyms for material that is more difficult. All of these strategies, require that children know the details of their exam in order to prepare accordingly. Therefore, helping them understand the importance of the details and how to use the information effectively is a sure way to help promote academic success.  

Food and Sleep

During exams, we have two different kinds of students. Student A who doesn’t feel there is enough time in a day to study and therefore skips meals or goes to bed late or wakes up early. On the other hand, Student B can’t function if they don’t take the time to eat and sleep and so they implement an appropriate routine. So which student do you think is likely to have greater academic success? If you chose Student B, you are absolutely correct!

A current study conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that students who eat breakfast have higher academic grades, less absences, and have increased cognitive performance. One area in particular being memory and we certainly need our memory for academic success (Student B as per our example). For those that skip breakfast (Student A as per our example), which is a reality for many children, results showed a noticeable decrease in alertness, attention, memory, and problem solving which aren’t exactly the areas we would like to see decreasing!

While trying to implement an appropriate bedtime for high school students during exam period may be a challenging task, it is important to remind our children that research shows that a good night’s sleep is directly related to academic performance. More specifically, researchers from McGill University and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal have found direct links between quality sleeps and better performance in math and languages. To be exact, the National Sleep Foundation is suggesting that teenagers need at least 9 hours of sleep (Elementary school students need 10-11 hours of sleep). For more information or on tips for implementing better sleep habits, feel free to follow the National Sleep Foundation link.

Study Breaks

Finally, we cannot forget about study breaks. Just the same as taking the time to eat and sleep properly, study breaks are crucial as there is a direct link with academic performance. While study breaks are proven to be important, knowing how to take a proper study break is a skill teenagers don’t necessarily have yet and need to be taught. Children can start by taking regular, shorter breaks, rather than longer ones as it may be more difficult to get back on track. Since the time a child is able to focus is about their age but in minutes (i.e. an average 7 year old can sit down and stay concentrated for about 7 min) we need to keep this in mind, especially when they are studying. Getting up and doing something physical movement for 1-2 minutes every 10-15 minutes also helps to bring energy back into the body, since sitting for long periods of time without moving is hard on the body. While these are just two basic tips I give my students, there are many others suggestions by Oxford Learning, if you would like to have a look!  

As you can see, studying is not the only factor in academic performance but rather the combination of the quality of studying, food , and sleep. As such, we have a responsibility as parents, teachers, and professionals to help our children learn the strategies and be aware of the current research, so that they have the best foundation to achieve their own personal academic success!


Carrie Carson, MA in Counselling Psychology, co