In 2014 Belgian researchers conducted some rigorous research into sleep and how it affects exam performance. They asked students to fill out the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index and also asked many questions about study habits, health, socioeconomic backgrounds and parental sleep habits. They gathered data from exams for various courses.There was a clear difference between those who slept well and those who did not, even when the researchers corrected for other variables.
Effectiveness: Students who extended their sleep duration from six to seven hours saw an average increase of 1.7 points (on a scale of 20) for each exam. So say you would have scored 50% otherwise? You could potentially increase your mark by 8.5% by sleeping an extra hour the night before the exam.
A study in 2013 by researchers in Pennsylvania found that, for a hands-on computer applications exam, a group of students who were told to sit down, breathe deeply and envisage getting an A in the exam performed better than those who were allowed to study for 5 minutes, or those who exercised vigorously for 5 minutes, prior to the exam.
Effectiveness: The mean result within the meditation group was more than 5% better than the control group.
In a different study, students who received mindfulness training in the two weeks leading up to their exams significantly increased their score on a standardised test, compared to students who had received the same amount of training in nutrition.
Effectiveness: I can’t convert this to a percentage score, but the students who did mindfulness training gained on average a 16% percentile boost after the training, i.e. their final score moved them higher in the exam population than they would have been previously, beating 16% more students.
An English study in 2012 found that students who brought water into their exam scored on more than those who did not. Unlike the studies above for meditation, these results were controlled using ability on previous results.
Effectiveness: The news article doesn’t report the results very clearly, but it appears that those who brought water into the exam scored on average 4.8% higher than those who did not.
Around exam time you will find many articles telling you what kind of food to eat for breakfast. These are not necessarily based on research. We know the function of different components in our food (macronutrients like fat, carbohydrates and protein and micronutrients like vitamins and minerals) but we can’t assume that eating particular foods in the morning will have a miraculous effect on your exam results.
Most of the studies seem to be on children with low socio-economic-status (SES) and many are not designed well. I found one study on dieting women which showed that low-carb diets had a negative effect on memory-related tasks and reaction time. There is a more recent systematic review that shows that (a) if a child or adolescent usually skips breakfast, having breakfast in the morning can have a short-term positive effect on tasks requiring attention, executive function and memory and (b) this effect is still valid even if you correct for low SES.
Effectiveness: I can’t find a percentage improvement in the abstracts, but the article above says that the improvements were best for mathematics and arithmetic tests.
I conclude that it is worth having breakfast on the morning of your examination, especially if you are doing a maths exam, and even if you do not usually have breakfast. Eat well and don’t skip carbs, but try to choose low GI foods as they will release glucose more steadily to your body during the day.
I recently started tutoring and my Year 11 students are coming up to their yearly exams. It has struck me that, as much as I can help with the academic side of things, many students also need help with non-academic issues, in particular looking after their general health. This includes
– sleeping well
– eating healthy foods
In future blog posts am going to cover sleep, diet and exercise in more detail and explain why they are important, plus some posts about revising for exams and about dealing with exam anxiety and maths anxiety.
Today I just want to share a few apps and general approaches dealing with relaxation, sleep and anxiety that I have found helpful myself, or my children have found helpful.
Scientific research has shown that test or exam results are not just linked to cognitive ability and skills learned, but also to the level of anxiety in the student prior to the exam. See, for example, research papers here, here and here.) A certain amount of anxiety is helpful but if students are overly anxious, relaxation and mindfulness techniques used right before the exam can help (see this paper).
Mindfulness is a particular approach to meditation where you quietly observe what is going on, in a non-judgmental way. It can help children to slow down, reduce stress and regulate their emotions. It may take a little bit of practice so I’m not recommending your teenager starts the day before their first exam. But, with practice, relaxation techniques like this can produce measurable improvements in test results.
The Headspace app teaches you how to practice mindfulness, in short 10 minute sessions. It is available for smart phones and on PCs. I tried their first ten sessions, called ‘Take 10(TM)’ and was impressed. I liked the English male voice and the little animations to support what the voice was telling you. Once you have done the first ten sessions you can subscribe to have access to the rest of their Foundation Course and also specific meditations dealing with, for example, health, performance and relationships.
You can sign up any time for the first ten meditations. But Headspace currently have a deal of 0.99 USD for three months subscription. A three month subscription would usually cost 12.95 USD per month. The deal expires on 8 Sep (US time zone) .
Click here if you want to get this offer. I don’t have any affiliate links to Headspace, I’m just advertising the offer because I think it’s a great deal and worth trying. As with any of these regular payments please take suitable steps to cancel the payments should you want to stop the subscription after the discounted period is over.
Australian readers – note that although they share the same name and have similar aims, this business is not linked with the Headspace service provided for young people across Australia.
2. Simply being
This is a guided meditation from Meditation Oasis (R) that you can download as an app for iOS or Android devices. You can choose a 5 minute meditation or go up to 30 minutes in 5 minute intervals. There are a few choices of background music or ambient sounds and you can also choose to continue the background audio for up to 2 hours or on an endless loop. I frequently use this app myself to provide a little bit of calm in the middle of my busy day.
All the Meditation Oasis (R) apps are inexpensive and you can also try their free app ‘Take a Break‘ to see if this approach works for you.
3. Yoga classes
Another option is for your child to try a yoga class. Many yoga teachers offer classes for teens and some may even offer special classes in the period leading up to exams. Be aware that, unlike the first two suggestions on this list, yoga is aligned to a particular philosophy and this may put some people off.
4. Yoga nidra
You don’t have to attend classes to experience the benefits of yoga. ‘Yoga nidra’ is a type of guided meditation where you follow audio instructions to still your body and mind. Yoga nidra uses tools that have been shown to reduce stress and aid relaxation, such as rotation of awareness around the body, and setting positive goals for yourself. Yoga practitioners report that during the process of yoga nidra, physiological markers such as brain activity and heart rate slow to the rates you would expect during deep sleep. A few scientific studies have verified some of these physiological changes during yoga nidra meditation.
To try this for yourself, just search on the internet for a yoga nidra recording. I often use this one by Kylie Terraluna. Note that the audio instructions will usually get you to wake up at the end, unless you choose a recording that is specifically aimed at getting you to sleep.
I plan to write a further blog post about sleep, how it works (as far as scientists know at the moment) and why it is important. I know from personal and familial experience that if you have problems getting to sleep or staying asleep, this is not easy to fix. So I am not saying that what I offer is a ‘cure-all’. Again just offering some suggestions that I have personally found useful to help me to get to sleep at times when I am feeling anxious.
1. Relax melodies (also Relax Oriental)
This free app for smart phones lets you choose a combination of ambient sounds to help you go off to sleep. You can vary the volume of each sound separately, should you wish to, and you can set time limits for the audio.
My children also like the Relax Oriental app, but I personally don’t find the sounds so relaxing on this one.
2. Relax and Rest
This app from Meditation Oasis (R) is another that I frequently use myself. It has a small selection of background audio and you can choose the length of time for both the meditation and the background.
This is a huge issue and any suggestions that I make here do not take the place of consulting with a registered professional about your child’s specific issues. I am also going to write about maths anxiety more specifically later.
These approaches to anxiety have helped within my family.
GoZen offers animated videos and interactive books to teach your child about their nervous system and how to apply techniques from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Many of the animations are based in high school. My younger children found this program very helpful and they now have a language to talk about what’s going on in their brain and body (for example, the videos introduce the idea of ‘thought holes’ for negative automatic thoughts.) Your teenager might find that this approach is a bit young for them but you can watch the first video on their home page and see what you think. The family program is 97 USD for one year, and you can also follow the blog to get free suggestions on how to help children with anxiety.
This program was developed by psychologists at Macquarie University and is implemented both at the university and by psychologists across Australia. They have been trialing an online version of the program but are not taking any new children for this trial until January 2017.
Go Zen and Cool Kids both use CBT but present it in a child-friendly way and use child-friendly language. This workbook is aimed at adults and applies CBT to depression, anxiety and anger. In the book you will find many useful exercises to do over several weeks or months. You will start to recognise what is going on with your brain and emotions and learn about how you can take practical steps to reduce the effect on your life. Have a look at the first chapter of the book here (pdf) and you can learn more about the book on the Mind over Mood website.
Those are my ideas for helping your child with relaxation, sleep and anxiety. What do you think? Do these approaches work for you? Would they work for your child? Do you have other suggestions? I would love to see your comments.