What’s the best way to study for an exam?

Hack your study habits and get smarter about preparing for exams with these 5 tips:

ONE. Feed your brain right.

  • Have a balanced breakfast, for example with a combination of protein, fruits, and healthy fats (such as nuts): it can be oatmeal or yogurt with granola, fresh fruit, walnuts and almonds. Walnuts improve cognitive function and can reduce memory loss, and almonds are beneficial for increased attention and awareness.
  • Eat an egg! Eggs are a powerful mix of B vitamins (they help nerve cells to burn glucose), antioxidants (they protect neurons against damage), and omega-3 fatty acids (they keep nerve cells functioning at optimal speed).
  • Have more excellent brain food for lunch such as sardines, beets, spinach, and lentils to boost your brain power.

TWO. Do your deep work EARLY in the day.

  • What is deep work? It is the work your brain does that is mainly focused on analytical thinking and that that requires the most concentration. For example, deep work can be reading, writing, coding, analyzing, critical thinking, or problem solving.
  • How early is “early”? Many scientists say that the brain’s peak performance happens 2-4 hours after we wake up. If, for example, you wake up at 6, your peak times are between 8 and 10 a.m. You can extend this time to the rest of the morning to maximize your peak time.
  • Why is this important? Doing your deep work early in the day allows your brain to focus fully on the problem at hand, with fewer distractions, less inputs from your environment, and with a lot of energy that you’ve gained from a restful night. It’s the exact opposite of what can happen if you leave your hardest work for nighttime, when you are exhausted from the day.

THREE. Don’t waste your time!

How can you focus if you believe you’ll be spending hours studying with no end in sight? Try a different approach to your work. When you’re ready to begin, use a timer to divide up your time into manageable increments that will allow your brain to focus in a more targeted and effective way.

  • For reviewing study material, Set the timer to 30 or 60 minute increments to maximize concentration; or, you can also try the Pomodoro technique  which consists of 25 minute blocks of time, followed by 5 minute breaks.
  • For practicing exam questions, use the review questions provided either in your textbook or given by your professor (and if you have neither, create your own questions based on the most important concepts from each chapter). Write the questions down on a sheet of paper. Then, use the Pomodoro technique to give yourself only a short time to answer each question. Use each 25-minute block of time to cover several questions, and go down the list until you’ve covered them all.
    • Tip: as you’re answering each question, write an outline of the basic points and then talk it through out loud. This helps you review, recall, and retain what you’ve learned in a much better way than just silently looking over the material and writing it out.
  • When you’re done with one segment, step away from your desk and do something completely unrelated to work to give your brain a chance to rest: take a 5-minute walk to get some fresh air, stretch your body for a few minutes, grab a cup of coffee or tea.

FOUR. Schedule in a workout LATER.

Exercise is definitely important to boost memory, but timing of it is key.

  • Scientists found that people who exercised four hours after their study session retained the information better a few days later than those who exercised either immediately after studying or those who didn’t exercise at all.
  • Why is this important? Brain scans from the study show that exercising with a delay affects the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is important for learning and memory.

FIVE. Train your brain to remain calm and give it time to rest.

So much information to absorb, so many details to remember, and all those tough deadlines to adhere to. Studying is hard! You can help your brain with meditation, taking a walk (every day and especially right before an exam), napping, and getting enough sleep.

  • Train your brain with meditation. This practice can help you deal better with the input of information that could lead to feelings of chaos, overwhelm, and stress. It’s not as complicated as it seems, and it has many benefits including better focus throughout the day and improved concentration. You can start with just 10 minutes. Download the Headspace app, which makes meditation easy, fun, and great for beginners.
  • Take a walk to boost memory and increase focus. Performing some form of physical exercise, even if it is targeted and short, improves your brain’s cognitive performance, problem solving ability, and even boosts long-term memory. Step away from your desk and walk for 30 minutes. If your neighborhood or college campus is noisy, take your headphones with you and listen to some relaxing instrumental music.
  • Use power naps for a burst of energy. To give your brain a chance to rest and absorb the material you’ve covered earlier in the day, opt for a power nap in the afternoon, for about 30 minutes. Block away environmental noise with noise-cancelling headphones or a pair of soft silicone ear plugs, and listen to music that can help you relax (it can be classical music or sounds of nature).
  • Reboot your brain with sleep. You are working towards your exams, but in order to pass you’ll need to make sure your brain functions at optimum levels. Chronic sleep deprivation can reduce your cognitive abilities, can impact your concentration, and can even reduce your IQ. Train your brain to wind down at the same time each evening by:
    • setting a bedtime alarm to go off 30 minutes before going to sleep
    • staying away from electronics (mainly your computer and TV screens)
    • stretching your legs with a short walk after dinner for about 20-30 minutes to boost digestion and give your brain some extra oxygen
    • doing something relaxing before bedtime: read a book, listen to music, or just close your eyes and breathe deeply for 10 counts before you brush your teeth and get ready for bed.

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