Health tips to help students get through their exams

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Exam performance and success is not just about learning, hard work and revision. Al Campbell looks at how health and wellbeing factors can play a huge part.

So it is exam time again. You and your colleagues have worked to support and teach your students all you can. It is time for them to venture out of the classroom and into the exam hall and it is down to them to perform – there’s nothing more you can do.

But wait. Don’t think that their grades will be all about your teaching or their hard work. Final grades depend upon performance on the day, and that depends on a whole host of things not related to teaching or revision at all. If you want them to do themselves (and your own hard work) justice, there are still ways in which you can have an impact.

Health and wellbeing

Performance is directly related to health and wellbeing. The fact is that any sort of performance – academic, musical, theatrical, sporting – is linked to these factors. 

If you feel good, if you feel “on it”, if you feel on top of your game, then chances are you will do your best and optimise your performance.

The thing is that, learning aside, there are simply so many physical and mental things that can get in the way of performance and cost those vital marks that can make the difference between grade boundaries.

Avoiding dehydration

Back in the day when exams meant two or three-hour papers on a sunny day in a stuffy room just about everybody came out with a headache. The reason – dehydration.

The fact is that the brain is mostly water. At the best of times the body gets through water at quite a remarkable rate and when it is working hard (and let’s not think exams are not hard physical and mental exercise), it uses it even more quickly. In a warm room, when you are concentrating hard, the risk of dehydration is very real.

There are some quite scary statistics about how dehydration can affect you. A two per cent level of dehydration leads to 30 per cent lower performance. Dehydration can be exacerbated by caffeine and stress – two other inputs that many students will bring into the exam hall.

The real problem is that dehydration will be kicking in towards the end of the exam at a time when a student is fighting to concentrate and get those vital extra few marks.

Sleep your way to an A

In general, nature is unkind to young adults when it comes to the sleep department. The body naturally produces a hormone called melatonin that helps us sleep. In young children and adults this starts naturally ramping up at around 10pm.

But in adolescence this pattern goes haywire. Young adults typically produce melatonin much later – they simply can’t get to sleep early because the body will not let them.

The problem is that a whole heap of research suggests that to perform at their optimum level, young adults need, on average, at least nine hours’ sleep a night. Research also suggests that most don’t even get eight hours. 

The logic is simple. Young adults naturally want to go to sleep around or after midnight when their melatonin kicks in. The body wants them to have nine hours’ sleep so they want to wake up at 9am or preferably later as many are still growing. 

But most have to get up much earlier for a morning exam. The double whammy is the fact that their body rhythms then start to slow them down just after lunch – immediately before that afternoon exam.

How does this translate to grades? A research study in America suggests that one of the differences between those who typically get A grades and those who are typically B students is that on average the A-graders get an extra 15 minutes’ sleep every night.

Stress vs concentration 

Anybody who has ever performed at just about anything knows that a little stress can be a good thing, but that too much can really wreck your chances.

A lot of students bring too much stress into the exam hall. Stress ruins concentration and reduces marks. Stress also causes physical reactions in your body, one of which is dehydration. In a broader environment, stress causes lack of sleep. In return lack of sleep can cause stress. It quite easily becomes a vicious circle.

Hayfever

The summer exam period embraces hayfever season. Hayfever starts around Easter (in a normal year!) with tree pollen – birch being the earliest and the worst. If you are okay with tree pollen, the grass season lies in wait causing almost 90 per cent of all allergic reaction.

Furthermore, up to 50 per cent of students report some hayfever symptoms during exams. Academic studies suggest that students with hayfever are 40 per cent more likely to drop a grade between January and summer. For more on hayfever, see my article Pollen Watch (SecEd 348, May 2, 2013 or http://bit.ly/10RcPjT).

Working out the answers

Nobody is sure why fitness is inextricably linked to exam performance but a host of studies say that students who take regular exercise get better grades than those that don’t. 

The recommendation is to try to raise your heart rate at least 30 minutes a day five times a week, or an hour a day three times a week. The perceived wisdom is that the benefit is to do with getting oxygen to the brain but there is no direct proof of that. Perhaps it might be as simple as the fact that students who take exercise sleep better.

Food for thought

The brain is only two per cent of your bodyweight but it consumes 25 per cent of the energy the body outputs. 

At exam times the brain is working overtime so it needs even more energy – how many students have you seen finish in the exam hall and immediately have something to eat. If your brain is trying to run on empty your marks will suffer.

As with dehydration, the problem is that the impact of not having enough fuel will come at the end of the exam when searching for those extra marks that will carry you across the grade boundary. It is not quick fix sugar the body needs – slow burn foods win every time.

Conclusions

If you want your students to do themselves and your teaching efforts justice, it is important to realise that support does not stop with learning and revision.

The ideal student is an athlete without hayfever who breakfasts on eggs and wholemeal toast after 9.5 hours of sleep and happily trots off into the exam unstressed with a litre of water.

If not all your students are like that at least try and make sure they take water into the exam – even the trickiest of them won’t argue with that.

  • Al Campbell is CEO and editor in chief of Doctor Wellgood, a new online health and wellbeing magazine and resource for students and young adults. 

Further information
Doctor Wellgood has produced a free-to-download guide entitled Making the Grade that covers these and other topics of health and wellbeing related to exam performance. It is available online at www.doctorwellgood.com


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