Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland Coláiste Ríoga na Máinleá in Éirinn

Running the Good Race into your Exams

08 May 2014
Exam time can often feel like a race. There is a distance to go, a determined time to get there, distractions running alongside and uncertainty about conditions on the day. While you can't always control these things you can easily boost brain-fitness to keep pace for the slow but steady race. The equation is so simple but often ignored. There's no need for a lifestyle overhaul and it's not rocket science. Sticking to the ABCs will keep you firing on all cylinders. Here are 5 top tips, from Deirdre O'Donnell from RCSI's Chaplaincy & Pastoral Care Office, for keeping your study plan on track:

1. Food for thought:
During exam prep prioritising time is a challenge. Yet it only takes a moment to get the ‘good mood food' right and avoid brain drain.

With the benefits outweighing the risks it's a no brainer. If exams span 3 days or 3 weeks stack the odds in your favour. Dodge the rollercoaster highs and lows of sweet candy to coffee chaos and limit ZIP to ZAP stimulants that drain the brain (sugar, syrups, stodgy and additive rich foods). Cram goodness in by reaching for wholesome quick fix options such as soups, smoothies and protein boosters like eggs on toast or spinach mash with bacon or tuna. Get garlic, ginger and cinnamon selfish and lace your yogurt with mashed fruit, oats or nutty niceties. Snack on avocadoes, grapes or pineapple pieces for an exotic diversion. Choose protein and slow releasing carbohydrates (rice, oats) ahead of carb curveballs (pastries and biscuits). 

2. Interrupt yourself purposefully:
If concentration is limited, the exam start line is near, anxiety is on the rise or moments of panic are setting in, how can you proceed to pass go?

Excessive mind chatter and worry can rise as we lose our focus because of tiredness, over trying, mental circling and in turn anxiety can disrupt engagement. If we notice we are lapsing into these loops then the key is to interrupt this by shifting attention to something short, immediate and purposely engaging during longer intervals. Get out for a quick sprint, bounce a ball, dance it out, blast a beat of motivating music, vent a rant in the journal or get in touch with your own guru or granny and seek the 10 minute wisdom of a peaceful mind. Keep the spark plugs fired by intensifying concentration for a short but focused period of time (approximately 10 minutes) on something that provides jump leads for the brain.

3. Small Rewards:
There is a balance to strike between delaying all pleasures until you pass the finish line and building them in along the way to get you there.

It may feel logical to slog it out studying constantly for long periods, however as the exams get closer continue to reward yourself after each study goal or exam by giving yourself time out by doing your favourite things. List the ‘rewards' for the day/week and weave them between study goals. If its time out swimming, gaming, with a pet, meeting friends, playing an instrument, keep these going. The plasticity of the brain is such that as we keep it engaged with the things that excite it, it will reward you with its ‘magnificence' or magni-Efficiency! Brain networks are dynamic so when they create new connections they are stimulated. Practicing what excites you regularly excites your brain so life shouldn't stop because exams start.
Getting outside for a run can help clear the mind!

4. Vocalise and Ventilate:
Whether your exams are oral or written the chances are that most of your time is concentrated on making, reading, swapping notes or playing back lectures you recorded.
As we intensify attention on reading, writing and listening we can become acutely internal in our thoughts. Ever notice when you are studying intensely sometimes you get stuck for words when you take a break? Also maybe the last thing you want to do is talk exams. However it's vital to vocalise between study periods - talk, sing, laugh, chat, joke, tell a story or call a friend. Talking ventilates the mind which keeps us on track. It's natural to be nervous getting ready for exams so talking keeps the nerves in check and the mind in balance. We are also helping others to help us without any big effort. As we chat we are releasing and gathering useful information that can be vital for our wellbeing and performance ahead.

As always, a good night's sleep is essential leading up to exam time!

5. BEYOND ABC and straight to Zzzzz: No top tip list could be complete without mentioning napping, sleeping, resting and dreaming. Remember you are not studying for the school of insomnia you are studying to contribute to the world of life. Learning is tiring and studying is exhausting so don't fight the wisdom of the body and mind when it calls out for a nap or a good night's sleep. Refreshing your mind body connection through rest is vital to supporting integrated learning during periods of intense study. When the yawning starts, set the alarm clock and take your ZZZs for optimum health.

Overall for basic performance that supports wellbeing, productivity, avoids brain drains and keeps you on track, choose good mood nutrition, stay focused between stimulation exercises, enjoy purposeful play time and talk with friends, family and good counsel and when you've got the ABC's study your way to each good Z.