The psychology of exams

For those who want to know what happens to their brain during exams.

Embrace the stress, but not too much

You shouldn't be too relaxed, but you also shouldn't freak out. It's all about finding that middle ground.

If you're feeling a little stressed about your exams, it turns out you're actually doing something right. Yerkes-Dodson law says that increased arousal or stress will actually increase your performance - up to a certain point.

Conversely, if you go into your exams too relaxed and more focussed on heading to the beach afterwards, then sorry to say, but your marks are going to suffer.

The key is to find your sweet spot.


To cram or not to cram

Whether you decide to cram, or start studying early, remember: only highlight what you need to know.

As you might have already found out from past experience, cramming most of your study into a big session the night before an exam isn't the best use of your brain's processing power, but why?

Because of time constraints, a crammer will try and rote learn the essentials, like all their maths equations, without any context as to the why or how to use them. Humans are built to make sense of things, rather than learn discreet facts in isolation. Spreading your learning out over a longer period and ensuring you understand exactly what you're learning will help you more come exam time.

Physiologically, we don't have much use for learning things out of context. If you are engaged in more integrated learning, you are thinking about the information and how to apply it, giving you many more cues to help you recall that piece of information for future use.


Total recall

It might be nice to study in the sun, but the more your study environment is like your exam environment - the better.

Everyone has a favourite place to study, but you probably don't realise the effect it has on your exam results.

It might sound obvious, but one of the best ways to study for an exam is to sit at a desk, not on a bed or at a large kitchen table. There's a theory called associative learning, which says our recall is better in similar environments to where we learnt the information.

When we learn something new, our brain stores away this new information together with details about the environment at the time. So, if you mimic the exam environment as much as possible during study, when you go into an exam it will be more familiar and the basic cues around you will help with recall.

Unfortunately, that also means you shouldn't really study with music on, because it's highly unlikely triple j will be playing on a radio during your exam. It's not as fun, but it does help with recall.


One thing at a time

female international student in study group in building 11

Hate to say it, but the further your phone is away from you, the more you'll get out of study.

In an age where we feel like we're missing out if we're not connected or online, it's easy to get distracted while studying. But if recall and recognition are the aim of studying then it's important to focus on the task at hand.

Unfortunately, our brains aren't built to do complex multitasking. It costs a lot of mental energy to switch back and forth between tasks, so you're often making things harder for yourself. By dividing your attention, you're not doing either task justice.

Constantly picking up your phone during a study session won't help your results. It may even be best to leave it in another room (out of sight, out of mind, right?).



While it may be tempting to stay up a little later to study the night before an exam, you may be doing your marks serious damage.

People who have less than six hours of sleep a night have a level of cognitive deficit, but they're not aware of it. They have a coffee and they feel ok, but their ability to analyse things is severely impacted.

Sleep is so important as there are quite a number of things that happen physiologically during sleep that help store memories for recall.

For most of us, it's more important to get a decent night's sleep than to cram and go into the exam on only a few hours of sleep.

So on that note, it's good luck and good night.

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