Carrie Carson

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

5 Strategies for Academic Success

Written by Carrie Carson, MA in Counselling Psychology, co

Student learning.jpg

Helping students stay focused in school is no easy task for teachers or for parents. We try so hard to give them the skills they need to be successful, but with all of the other things going on in their life sometimes it’s just too much. So what are some easy strategies that we can implement to help alleviate their stress (which also alleviates our stress!) that also promotes their academic success?

1. Write everything down

Although this may seem like common sense, it’s not always for our children. Even though they receive an agenda at the beginning of the year, most don’t use it unless their teachers or parents request that they do so, and even at that we struggle with how often they have it with them. So how can we encourage our children to write things down? Well, we will need to find creative ways to engage them, child/age-dependent of course. An example can be to show them how to make their agenda interesting by having them color coordinate their classes or highlight important dates. Doing this, will make the agenda’s appearance more appealing and inevitably make the use of an agenda more fun! Greater use of their agenda will also make them more aware of what is to come, which certainly helps with time management (and helps build their executive function skills which are important for academic success). Sometimes, however, we have to consider that not all students know how to write their homework in their agenda and this is where we as parents and teachers come in. Show your children how to write their homework down, help them practice fast and efficient ways to document in their agenda (ie., acronyms, shortened names for classes, etc.). Guidance and practice will help them to master these skills and make the use of their agenda much more natural.   Here is a link to help you get started. 

2. Set goals

Every child has a goal, whether distant future or at the moment. Help them identify what their goal is and how they can make it a SMART goal. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Having goals is often great motivation, therefore helping them set goals and showing them how to make them SMART will inevitably create success, and we all know “success breeds success”. Take for example a goal of Honor Roll, while this is a great start we need to break it down even further than that. We will need to start by recognizing that in order to obtain this goal we must receive an overall average of 80% in each class. For a student who typically receives 80’s but is just under in one of their classes, this goal can be revised to address the one class that is just under the 80%. However, for the child who typically gets 60%, this goal is not necessarily attainable. As such, we could make it more attainable by suggesting an increase in their overall grade in one or two classes by a manageable amount. The idea of setting SMART goals is that the student, with additional effort, should be able to reach them, and each success increases motivation to continue.

3. Time management

Children see due dates and deadlines but don’t always understand how to make the best use of their time, in order to complete the work. Help your children organize their agenda to include all elements of their day. For instance, have them write in activities they have in the evenings during the school week as well as on the weekend so that they can see which time slots are unavailable. You can have them add as much or as little as you want (this depends on their current level of organization). By having a visual of available time, parents/teachers can help students break down their work into the available time slots leaving students with a concrete plan to complete their work. Hopefully, with practice, students will then learn the skills to do this on their own. Since time management is greatly associated with executive functioning, you may notice that children who have difficulty with this task will also have difficulty in their everyday life. If your child seems to forget about appointments, this may be because they have a hard time keeping track of time and obligations. If they consistently miss deadlines, this may be because they are unable to adequately predict the amount of time a project may take. If your child needs constant reminders to accomplish tasks, this may also be because they have difficulty with multi-step tasks. Recognizing their area(s) of difficulty and implementing strategies to aid them, will certainly improve their overall success. Whether or not your child has learning difficulties, ADD or ADHD, here is a link to some additional strategies that can be adapted to all students.

4. Self-Care

It is always motivating when there are perks attached to good work, but no need to buy them gifts or bribe them. Using appropriate time management skills should create more space for them to do the things they like. Have them identify a list of activities they enjoy and show them that the more organized they are the more time there will be for these activities. When they see the proof of your “suggestion”, the motivation to continue will increase. Be sure to use their list, as showing them there will be more time for doing the dishes or washing the floor may not get them too excited! Research has also shown that including them in the process by giving them choices, increases both learning and interest (Cordova and Lepper, 1996; Lyengar and Lepper,1999).

5. Study Method

Help your child find a study method that is right for them as this is a key factor in academic success. Not everyone learns the same way. Some students are more visual, some more auditory, and others more kinesthetic. Each type of learner has specific needs and as such study methods need to be adapted. For instance, if your child is an auditory learner, have them record their voice practicing their vocabulary words. Listening to it over and over will certainly help with the memorization process. If they are a visual learner, have them write things down in colorful or artistic ways. For example, they can make PowerPoint presentations or cue cards that are color coordinated. Anything that is appealing to the eye will help a visual learner be more successful. Finally, if your child is a kinesthetic learner, you will want to incorporate a physical component where they can get involved and be part of the learning process. For instance, instead of just reading their novel for English class, have them act out some of the important parts. Don’t forget to be creative, having fun is a sure way to reduce the resistance from your children when it comes to completing their work. Here are some more tips on teaching good study habits