How to manage exam season: take breaks and breathe

26 September 2023
Resting is just as important as studying
Associate Professor Paul Ginns' research shows that rest and relaxation maximises academic performance, even during exams. He explains why in The Conversation.

Around Australia, Year 12 students are heading into the final stretch of study before exams start in early term 4. This is typically seen as a very intense period of preparation. But, as our research shows, it is also important to rest during this time if you want to maximise your performance.

Intuitively, we understand breaks are important. We can take rest breaks across different times in our lives. They include sabbaticalsgap years and holidays, weekends and nightly sleep.

But rest breaks can be beneficial on even shorter time frames, during study sessions and even during exams themselves.

Firstly, try and get some sleep

Oladimeji Ajegbile via Pexels.

Students may be tempted to stay up late, trying to cram for an exam the following day. The big risk here is that lack of sleep can do more harm than good.

Sleep plays an important role in a range of brain functions, including maintaining attention and consolidating memories. So getting a poor night of sleep before an exam may mean the topics you’ve tried to cram aren’t well-formed in your long-term memory. Even if they were, the brain fog from lack of sleep means you may not recall what you’ve learned under the pressure of exam conditions.

In the lead-up to your exams, here are some specific things to consider:

  • try and keep all screens out of the bedroom: people often struggle with sleep because they’re tempted to check their phone at bedtime.
  • screens also emit blue light: this can interfere with your body’s circadian rhythms. Blue light during the day enhances attention, but too much of it in the evening can interfere with sleep quality.
  • so don’t use a smartphone as an alarm: get an old-fashioned alarm clock instead.

For more information about sleep, the Sleep Health Foundation has specific advice for high school students.

You need study breaks

When we study, we’re using our working memory (processing of small amounts of information, needed for things like comprehension and problem-solving). This builds our understanding of a topic. We then want to encode that understanding into long-term memory for use later, such as in an exam.

Without breaks, over time, these working memory resources become depleted and we notice it’s harder and harder to concentrate.

In our 2023 study, we found that a short (five minute) break following a period of difficult cognitive work (solving mental arithmetic problems) made a substantial difference to how much students learned during a lesson on a mental mathematics strategy.

Students who took a “do nothing” break performed 40% better than the no-break students on a subsequent test. Students who watched a first-person perspective video of a walk in an Australian rainforest for five minutes also performed better (57%) than the no-break students.

This suggests building in short rest breaks during study can help you learn.

How do you build in breaks?

Here are some specific strategies to help you get the rests you need:

  • when you plan your study schedule build in short breaks: drawing on the Pomodoro time management technique, we recommend using a timer (but not one on a smartphone). Aim to take a five-minute break after 25 minutes of study.

  • again, don’t use a smartphone: many of the features of a phone are purpose-built to capture and keep your attention, which you need for studying! These short breaks could take many forms: getting a cup of tea, playing with a pet, getting some sun outside, doing some star jumps to wake yourself up, or some breathing exercises (I explain these below).

  • longer breaks are important too: following the Pomodoro technique, aim to take a longer break (15-30 minutes) after four rounds of 25 minutes study/five minutes rest. Use at least some of these longer breaks for your physical and mental health away from your desk (and screens) – such as exercisemeditation, or a 20-30-minute nap.

Anh Nguyen via Unsplash.

Also take breaks during exams

It’s reasonable to think we should be using every minute of an exam for answering questions. But just as rest breaks during study can help restore attention, breaks during exams themselves may also be helpful.

Breaks are a common part of exams for students with disability provisions, but with some planning, all students might benefit from breaks.

A common strategy you can use to prepare for Year 12 exams is to complete past exam papers. When you do this, use the same “short break” study strategy described above. When it seems like a good break point (for example, in between finishing one section of the paper and starting another), stop for a few minutes and practise taking a short break.

Under exam conditions, you’re more limited in what type of break you can take. But simple controlled breathing routines such as “box breathing” or the “4-7-8 method” can help you refocus.

These routines can also activate the “relaxation response” – the opposite of the “flight-or-flight” response we experience under stressful conditions (including exams).

An even shorter form of breathwork to reduce stress in the moment is the physiological sigh – two inhales, followed by an exhale.

When it comes to the actual exam, you’ll be using the reading time to plan how you’ll complete the various sections. Take this time to also think carefully about when you’ll take some short breaks. When the exam begins, you might even write “take a two-minute break now” at suitable points in the exam booklet.

There is so much to think about in the lead-up to and during exams. If you schedule in and practise taking breaks, you will get better at doing it and give yourself and your brain a really important rest.

This piece was originally published by The Conversation. It was written by Paul Ginns, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. 

Loren Smith

Media & PR Adviser