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Girl studies in the sun, but would be better off studying at a desk similar to an exam environment.

For those who want to know what happens to their brain during exams.

Learning a bit of psychology, to know just how your brain works during exams, could help you perform at your bestSo, just what should you keep in mind when studying?

Embrace the stress, but not too much

A student looks stressed while studying on his laptop - but too much stress can affect your marks.

You shouldn’t be too relaxed, but you also shouldn’t freak out. It’s all about finding the middle ground.

If you’re feeling a little stressed about your exams, it turns out you’re actually doing something right. Yerkes–Dodson law says that increased arousal or stress will actually increase your performance – up to a certain point.

An athlete about to run a race or a student about to sit an exam needs to have some level of arousal to perform at their best. We get stressed because it serves a function. It’s our body’s way of telling us that we should expend more attention and energy on the task at hand.

However, too much stress and anxiety will have a negative influence on your performance in exams. Cognitive effort is a limited resource, so if stress and anxiety are competing with recall for this resource, then you won’t be open to think about things in a complex way, which you want during an exam.

Conversely, if you go into your exams too relaxed and more focussed on your schoolies trip, then sorry to say, but your marks are going to suffer.

The key is to find your sweet spot.

To cram or not to cram

If you decide to cram, your page may end up like this one - Covered in blue highlighter

Whether you decide to cram, or start studying early, remember: only highlight what you need to know.

As you might have already found out from past experience, cramming most of your study into a big session the night before an exam isn’t the best use of your brain’s processing power, but why?

Because of time constraints, a crammer will try and rote learn the essentials, like all their maths equations, without any context as to the why or how to use them. Even if a teacher gave you all the answers to a long exam it would still be very difficult and you wouldn’t learn anything of real use.

Humans are built to make sense of things, rather than learn discreet facts in isolation. Spreading your learning out over a longer period and ensuring you understand what you’re learning will help you more come exam time.

Physiologically, we don’t have much use for learning things out of context. If you are engaged in more integrated learning, you are thinking about the information and how to apply it, giving you many more cues to help you recall that piece of information.

Total recall

Girl studies in the sun, but would be better off studying at a desk similar to an exam environment.

It might be nice to study in the sun, but the more your study environment is like your exam environment – the better.

Everyone has a favourite place to study, but you probably don’t realise the effect it has on your exam results.

It might sound obvious, but one of the best ways to study for an exam is to sit at a desk, not on a bed or at a large kitchen table. There’s a theory called associative learning, which says our recall is better in a similar environment to where we learnt the information.

When we learn something new our brain stores away this new information together with details about the environment at the time. So if you mimic the exam environment as much as possible during study, when you go into an exam it will be more familiar and the basic cues around you will help with recall.

Unfortunately, that also mean you shouldn’t really study with music on, because it’s highly unlikely triple j will be playing on a radio during your exam. It’s not as fun, but it helps recall.

One thing at a time

Students study at a table.

Hate to say it, but the further your phone is away from you, the more you’ll get out of study.

In an age where we feel like we’re missing out if we’re not connected or online, it’s easy to get distracted while studying. But if recall and recognition are the aim of studying then it’s important to focus on the task at hand.

Unfortunately, our brains aren’t built to do complex multitasking. It costs mental energy to switch back and forth between tasks, so you’re often making things harder for yourself. You’re dividing your attention and not doing either task justice.

This means constantly picking up your phone during a study session won’t help your results and it may be best to leave it in another room (out of sight, out of mind, right?).


While it may be tempting to stay up a little later to study the night before an exam, you may be doing your marks serious damage.

People who have less than six hours of sleep a night have a level of cognitive deficit, but they’re not aware of it. They have a coffee and they feel ok, but their actual ability to analyse things is severely impacted.

Sleep is so important as there are quite a number of things that happen physiologically during sleep that help store memories for recall.

For most of us, it’s more important to get a decent night’s sleep than to cram and go into the exam on only a few hours of sleep.

So on that note, it’s good luck and good night.

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