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The other day, an email arrived from my friend Cindy, with a link to an article in the Wall Street Journal. No, it wasn't about finding the best hedge fund manager or advice on what to do when the stock market takes another nosedive.
Instead, it was an article about new research findings for the most productive ways students can and should prepare for exams. And if I have any say about it, it's going to change the way my daughter studies for the exams she'll face in her 1 1/2 years left of high school, not to mention her upcoming SATs and the ACT. For her sake, I only wish I'd read it before the math exam she's facing today.
The article, which can be found here, covers everything from how to study effectively, to the type of sleep a student should get the night before an exam, and even the type of breakfast she should eat.
Turns out that those of us (present company included) who pulled all-nighters in college shouldn't have bothered. According to the article, a 2008 study of 120 students showed that those who crammed the night before an exam scored lower than those who prepared ahead of time. Further, it showed that an all-nighter "impairs reasoning and memory for as long as four days." Wow. Talk about a studying hangover.
As for how to successfully prep for an exam, the article confirmed what we' at SchoolFamily.com are hearing more and more—repetition and practice, practice, practice are the best ways to learn and retain information. A student preparing for an exam should test himself repeatedly to teach his brain to retrieve and apply knowledge, according to the WSJ article. This is the method also recommended by SchoolFamily.com blogger and full-time educator Livia McCoy. Read McCoy's blog post on the topic from earlier this week here.
So we now know that repetition practice and self-testing are the ways to study, but how about the best time to study—or does it even matter? It definitely matters, according to the director of a sleep and research lab who is quoted in the article. He says students should study the most difficult material immediately before going to be the night before the exam, which apparently "makes it easier to recall the material later." He cautions against waking up earlier than usual to study, saying this compromises needed rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep.
Okay, so what about breakfast? A hearty morning meal of sausage, eggs, and bacon? Or perhaps a quick granola bar or a bowl of cereal grabbed on the run? WRONG. Students facing an exam should enjoy a breakfast full of carbohydrates and fiber. This combination, found in the form of, say, oatmeal, offers slow digestion and therefore a longer feeling of fullness. But the article also reports that what a student eats in the week before the exam also matters. In one study, students who ate a "high fat, low-carb diet heavy on meat, eggs, cream, and cheese" for five days before a test, performed poorly as as compared to the scores they received on the same exam after eating the recommended high-carb, high-fiber breakfast.
So long, Frosted Flakes. Hello Quaker Instant Oatmeal.
Finally, in a recommendation that I found especially helpful (and that I appreciated as a nod to the significance of a student's emotional state before an exam), experts in the WSJ article offered an easily learned "calming tactic" for students to use before a test. Students are asked to imagine themselves in a pleasant yet "challenging and invigorating" situation, giving the example of kicking the winning goal in a soccer game. Once students have their image in mind, they are told to immediately switch that image to the room where the exam will take place, such as their math classroom. With practice, the experts say, students will be able to do this successfully on the day of the test.
An even easier method (which speaks to me as a writer, and validates my propensity for making PRO/CON lists when faced with something I'm anxious about), is to have an anxious student use the 10 minutes before her test to write down her worries. In a study of college students, those who did this exercise scored the same on the test as the students who weren't feeling anxious about the test. In other words, confront your biggest fears and put them down on paper. Come to think of it, this exercise might work for any anxiety-inducing situation students, or adults, might face in life.
So, tonight I'll hear from my daughter about how her dreaded math test went today. And for future exams, I'll encourage her to follow these guidelines and studying smarter, not harder.