Testing times: tips to help you study

With summer exams fast approaching, here’s a guide to making the most of the time you have left


Summer exams are like elephants. In the autumn, they are dots on a distant horizon. By spring, those dots are starting to look like actual elephants, thundering in your direction.

This is wonderful if you are a person who enjoys studying. If not, here are a few tips to help you avoid getting trampled on when time runs out.

First, remember that habits matter more than goals. It’s great to have goals, but it’s habits that get you there – or get you somewhere else you didn’t mean to be. So create habits of studying, at certain times or places or in certain ways. As time goes on, these habits will lower your stress levels. That’s good because excessive stress inhibits your ability to learn, as I’ll explain later.

One habit should be to track your progress. Research suggests that tracking progress helps you to get more done. Just putting an ‘x’ against each day on which you have studied a particular subject will do.

If you avoid certain subjects (or even all of them!) try this trick: make a list of subjects, number them and do them at random. We often avoid things for irrational and unconscious reasons. Choosing at random gets around that block – you just do whatever comes up. I use the random.org website and app, which was created at Trinity College, Dublin.

You need, of course, to develop the art of focusing, by which I mean no Instagram, Snapchat, Slack, Twitter, Facebook, email or news updates. It helps if you break each period down into chunks of, say, 25 minutes. If you’re really addicted to social media then maybe start with 15 minutes and build up to 25. After each period, allow yourself five minutes or so of social media or other relaxation.

This is known as the pomodoro technique. Pomodoro is the Italian for tomato. The technique was named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer.

If the thought of giving 25 minutes to every item on an un-appetising list really turns you off, start with a sort of drill in which you give five minutes to every subject on the list, chosen at random. Then go back and give more time to whatever you want to focus on. I do this practically every day with my work. Sometimes, I even cut the five minutes down to three to get myself going.

Pathetic maybe, but if it works it works.

Background music

Some people use background music to help them focus more calmly. If that helps you, then I would say by all means go ahead and do it. You need to chose the right music though. If your playlist makes you lose focus, then change the playlist.

I mentioned above that studying while stressed out makes it harder to learn. When you’re very stressed, your brain goes into fight or flight mode because it assumes you are under threat. It puts up your blood pressure and lowers your learning capacity so that you can focus on this threat. That’s not helpful when you’re studying, so cultivate calm, for instance through having that regular study habit, or creating a calm environment.

You should also build a little mindfulness into your approach to help you keep stress levels down. Try this: count to seven while you’re breathing in and to 11 while you’re breathing out. Do this three times in a row. Every time you get distracted, bring your attention back to the counting. You could do this whenever you’re feeling a bit stressed, or between subjects, at the exam, in the classroom, or in almost any kind of situation. The more you do it, the more the pre-frontal cortex (behind your forehead) will calm your emotional brain (more or less between your ears) where a lot of the stressing happens.


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