Exam Week

exam week title

At various times throughout their academic careers, students face particularly challenging weeks: midterms and finals. Typically, these are weeks that combine due dates for major papers and projects with comprehensive exams in most classes. The work load is large and the pressure is high. Let’s quickly look at some of the ways students can help themselves do their best during exam week.

There’s more to exam success than just knowing the content. Students need to know the content, of course, but they also need to take good care of themselves and get all of their ducks in a row.

Taking good care of yourself means prioritizing brain health during exam week. Ideally, this should be a priority all the time because a healthy brain has an easier time with school in general,1 but brain health is especially important in the week leading up to a high-stakes exam. For instance, you’ll probably have a very difficult time maintaining focus during a lengthy exam if your stomach is grumbling because you didn’t eat a healthy breakfast. You’ll also struggle to demonstrate what you know if you’re exhausted from lack of sleep.2 In short, if you take good care of yourself, you’ll be much more likely to do your best.

Getting all of your ducks in a row means taking care of all the boring, mechanical things that prevent needless frustration. For example, you don’t want to discover that your calculator’s batteries are dead on the first problem of a high-level math test. It’s also pretty upsetting to discover that your pencil’s eraser has hardened to the point of uselessness when you try to change an answer on a bubble sheet. If you take care of all these things beforehand, you’ll have an easier time.

What follows is a series of four lists outlining the simple things you can do to give your best performance on an important exam or week of exams.

The Week Before the Test

  • Study or do practice problems because it’s your last chance!
    • Remember, “studying” = writing.2
    • Push yourself to put in extra time this week. Make yourself proud.
    • Reduce or eliminate time-draining activities such as:
      • Television.
      • Video games.
      • Social media.
  • Prioritize sleep because you won’t be able to make up for sleep-deprivation in one night.1
  • Exercise because it increases your brainpower and mental endurance.3 *
  • Stay hydrated, eat healthy food, and try to avoid sugar because your brain needs premium fuel.*

The Night Before the Test

  • Test yourself on major topics and areas of weakness.2
  • Plan your morning so tomorrow goes smoothly.
    • Know what you’re required, allowed, and not allowed to bring to the test.
      • This varies by exam, so know the rules for your specific test.
      • If you get notes for the test, make sure you’ve got a complete, easy-to-read set of notes.
    • If you’ll be using a calculator, put fresh batteries in your calculator and check to make sure they actually work.
    • Prepare four #2 (yellow, wooden) pencils, sharpened with good erasers.
    • If pens are required, make sure you have working, relatively new ones.
    • Pack your materials to save time in the morning.
  • Relax and go to bed early. *

The Morning of the Test

  • Get up early enough to be fully awake.
  • Get a small amount of exercise because it helps wake you up, improves your cognitive function,3 increases your mental endurance,3 and helps you handle upcoming stress.*
  • Eat a large, hearty breakfast because your brain will require extra fuel for the exam.*
    • Try to avoid sugar because it hinders cognitive performance.6
    • Remember that foods high in protein, fat, and fiber give you lasting energy.1
  • Don’t deviate from whatever your normal caffeine/medication routine is.
  • Briefly enjoy whatever sets you in a good mood – music, nature, comedy, etc. – because it helps you do your best.*
  • Consider doing a few problems or taking a quick look at the content as a way of warming up your brain.
  • Take your materials.
    • Double check to make sure you have what you need.

During the Test

  • If it is a closed-note test, begin by jotting down critical notes or reminders to yourself.
    • It might be a formula, like the Pythagorean Theorem, that you’re worried about forgetting.
    • Or it might be a reminder, like “Simplify your fractions!”
    • Do this before reading any part of the test.
  • Don’t allow yourself to get stuck on a question you don’t know. Keep moving.
    • Be aware of the time.
    • Consider wearing a watch.
  • Remember that stress is normal during exams.
    • Actually, stress is there to help you rise to the occasion.8
    • If you find yourself panicking or spacing out, take 30 seconds to pause your test effort and reboot with a microbreak. *
  • Take deep breaths because the brain likes oxygen. Deep breathing also helps you stay calm and focused.
  • Use good posture because it helps you perform better.
    • Sit up straight, feet planted on the floor.
    • Good posture activates core muscles, thereby getting your blood flowing, thereby helping you feel awake.
    • Alert posture also helps you feel more alert because of self-perception.
    • Confident body language increases both confidence and performance.9
  • Remember that you’ve learned lots of awesome techniques that can make you a powerful test-taker.
    • 99% of those techniques involve writing.
    • Putting things down on paper enhances your brainpower.2 Do it.

Between Tests

  • Use any breaks you get during the day wisely.
    • Eat well, hydrate, and move your body.*
    • Avoid energy-draining electronic media.
    • Embrace moments of boredom; those moments are real breaks that facilitate recovery.4

* Everyone is different. Know yourself. Choose patterns of behavior, exercise, and food that work best for you and align with what your doctor has recommended.

Works Cited

1 MacDonald, Matthew. Your Brain: The Missing Manual. O’Reilly Media, 2008.

2 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.

3 Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Pear Press, 2008.

4 Ben-Shahar, Tal. Psychology 1504: Positive Psychology. Harvard Open Course, 2009.

5 Aubele, Teresa, and Susan Reynolds. “Have You Fed Your Brain Today?Psychology Today. September 7, 2011.

6 Reynolds, Susan, and Teresa Aubele. “Why a Sugar High Leads to a Brain Low.Psychology Today. October 18, 2011.

7 Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Crown Business, 2010.

8 McGonigal, Kelly. “How to Make Stress Your Friend.” TEDGlobal 2013.

9 Cuddy, Amy. “How Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.” TED Global 2012.

Image Credit

Title Image: arielaot. “fifteen / 365: finals are killing me slowly.”https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0. Text added.

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