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How to deal with the stress of study

By Dr Michael Carr-Gregg & Flip Shelton 3 min read

Helping your child to cope with the mental pressure.

Try to get enough sleep

For all students, the single most important study tool is a good night’s sleep. Research demonstrates that staying up late in an attempt to memorise extra facts has the opposite effect, giving the brain no “downtime” to embed its knowledge. In a study, researchers tracked students taking major exams and correlated their marks with the number of hours they slept the night before. Not too surprisingly, they found that sleep deprivation corresponded to lower exam scores. Most importantly, sleep helps your brain to assimilate new knowledge into your long-term memory so that you can recall it when it comes to test day. Anyone who has tried to concentrate with half a night’s sleep can also testify to improved focus with better sleep.

Exercise before an exam

Research has shown that exercising can aid your memory and brain power. It has been scientifically proven that taking a 20-minute walk before an exam can boost your cognitive performance by up  to 10 per cent. A study by Charles Hillman of the University of Illinois, USA, found that moderate exercise (30 minutes for adults and 20 minutes for children) can result in a 5–10 per cent improvement in cognition, the activity that takes place in the brain’s frontal lobe.

Take breaks every 20 minutes

On average, our brains are not designed to remain focused on a single task for a significantly long time—most people usually begin to lose focus and concentration after 20 minutes. Their quality of reception starts to drop and their ability to adequately grasp information from their point of attention deteriorates. At this point, their brain requires some time off, a distraction. Bear this in mind when planning your study and try to take regular breaks—it’s a more efficient way to work.

Go cold turkey on tech

It can be hard to disconnect from the online world while studying, but keeping the end goal and timeframe in mind will ease the process. Rather than relying on willpower, try internet-blocking applications such as Cold Turkey that block distractions such as apps or websites for certain periods of time within your schedule. They can be fantastic for improving focus and productivity.

Say it out loud

A paper by Colin MacLeod and colleagues in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition in 2010 looked at people’s memory for items such as a list of words. In their experiments, they found that if people studied the list by reading half of the words silently and saying the other half out loud, the words spoken aloud were remembered much better than those that were read silently. This is known as the “production effect” and it can be a great technique for improving your memory of certain information during study.

Taking notes? Don’t use a laptop

Did you know that taking notes with pen and paper (the old-fashioned way) actually enhances memory and your capacity to understand whatever it is that you are studying? Researchers from Princeton and UCLA in the USA studied students in classrooms where some took notes with laptops and others with pen and paper. They discovered that taking notes using a tablet or computer could be damaging to academic performance as students who did so were more likely to transcribe “mindlessly”, resulting in shallower learning. Students using pen and paper showed they had learned and retained more understanding in the long run.

Have breakfast

Food is energy and knowing what to eat and drink before studying or taking exams can make all the difference to one’s performance. Missing breakfast can impair your cognitive function and capacity to study, while evidence suggests that breakfast consumption—when compared to skipping breakfast—enhances cognitive function in all students. Particularly good breakfast foods include full-fat plain yoghurt, blueberries, eggs and wholefood cereals such as porridge and natural muesli. If you find it hard to manage a substantial meal in the morning, at the very least try a healthy smoothie.

Eat dark chocolate

Consuming dark chocolate (with over 70 per cent cocoa content) can help buffer the effects of the stress hormone cortisol. Make sure you only consume it in moderate amounts, though!


Extract from Smart Snacks by Michael Carr-Gregg & Flip Shelton, published by Penguin Life on 5 February 2019, RRP $24.99

Dr Michael Carr-Gregg is an adolescent psychologist, a well-respected speaker and one of Australia's leading authorities on teenage behaviour. Flip Shelton is a mother who's passionate about good food and healthy food choices.


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