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Crunch Time: Tips for Teens Facing Final Exams

Pediatrician gives advice for children stressed out over end of year testing

I can still vividly remember sitting at my desk in my room, studying hard for high school exams. After diligently reaching the end of a section of review, I would often hop up, push the play button on my jambox, and dance. In front of my wide closet with its two mirrored doors.

I would be very silly and extremely uninhibited in a way that, in other settings, I was not. After all, in the words of one of the songs I liked back then, “We can dance if we want to.” I was the star of my own show, and in the span of a few minutes, I burned a lot of energy, tweaked some different dance steps, and essentially rewarded myself with a little fun. I would also sing along loudly before an extremely impressed but altogether imagined audience. These dance sessions were my secret indulgence. And, after a few minutes, I would go back to studying, by then feeling happier, out-of-breath, and energized for another section.

Why am I admitting to this? My confession may derive partly from the fact that I have some grey hairs and tween/teen children of my own and am mostly beyond getting embarrassed about stuff like that anymore. I am confessing also because it could help kids, both my own and my patients. You see, it turns out that those study breaks might have really helped me to get good grades in school (and—while I am a terrible singer and a decent dancer at best, I was good at school). Surprise be it to me, my self-developed study routine, complete with my solo Eighties dance party, fits well with what the research shows about how the brain works best, how to study, and how to do well on your tests.

So I’m going to draw on my younger self, as well as some of the research out there, to provide some tips to kids and teens facing tests (and to their parents, who can pass these tips along). Of course, these tips work best if applied after studying throughout a semester and clarifying points with teachers.

1. Take short, active study breaks or “brain breaks.” Research (including studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) shows that activity increases a person’s focus, memory, and effectiveness at learning. Exercise increases blood flow and therefore oxygen to the brain and activates the hippocampus, a part of the brain important for learning and memory. Many teachers are starting to apply this research in the classroom, particularly at the elementary school level. For younger kids, is a website available where kids can exercise along with people and cartoons for a few minutes of brain rest between schoolwork. Another similar idea is the Brainergizer program devised by the National Association of Physical Literacy. Look these up! Older kids may prefer doing HIITs (High-Intensity Interval Training) such as described on the app “The 7 Minute Workout,” doing crunches, or jumping rope for a few minutes. Then, when kids are ready to go back to studying, they can either sit back down feeling refreshed and stretched, or they may choose to study while walking around. Movement helps memory and cognition.

2. Go outside and be mindful. In addition to my short dance breaks, I also took slightly longer breaks to shoot some baskets or to walk my dog, as dog-walking was one of my responsibilities. Just seeing my dog with his happy prance, feeling the wind against my face, and noticing the trees and flowers around me helped me gain a fresher perspective. Many times I would leave for my walk feeling stressed that I could not spare the time for it. However, I would return home feeling newly capable of getting through what had seemed before to be an unsurmountable amount of studying. Research has shown that time outside helps concentration. Check out Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods for more about that. For many, the outdoors allows for a resetting of life’s pace, a chance for creativity, and an opportunity for mindfulness and meditation. Playing a game of your senses, such as asking yourself what sounds you hear (birds, wind, leaves) and what smells you smell (the flowers or the neighbor’s burger on the grill), can help give your brain a peaceful break from more stressful thoughts and can lead to a greater sense of well-being.

3. Assume power poses. As I said above, part of my fun in dancing and singing in front of my mirror was imagining I was some kind of star. I feel silly admitting my imaginings now, but, looking back, perhaps it was important for me to see myself in a mirror in a position of confidence. Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s famous study and TED Talk about “power poses” such as a Wonder Woman pose that —even if held for just a minute prior to an important job interview, presentation or other life challenge— can make for greater confidence and ultimately success. Watch the TED Talk if you want some short inspiration to strike a power pose! While there is some debate about the effects of such poses on hormone levels, visualization of success cannot be a bad thing. It can only help.

4. Get sleep.  Doing all-nighters does not help students to do better on exams. Sleep is needed for processing and for memory. So, at some point, a student needs to put up the book, stop the exercising, and start a calming routine to prepare for bed. Then he or she needs to go to bed, even if having the feeling that more study time is needed. Certainly planning a slightly earlier wake-up time for some last-minute review might be a good idea, but late-night cramming and a sleepy mind are not a combination for success. When I was younger, this part of the equation was a no-brainer, as my whole household’s expected bedtime on school-nights was 10ish (later on rare exception). This bedtime was surely easier to enforce then, before the existence of cell phones and of texts coming in at all hours. My friends knew not to call after 9:30 p.m. on a weeknight, or they would risk my parents answering the phone and telling them it was too late to call. At any rate, having a finite cap on my study time contributed to efficiency in studying in addition to protecting my sleep. Kids today must make a conscious decision to prioritize sleep and to put their electronics in another room so that incoming messages do not interfere with their much-needed rest. If they need help settling down to sleep, they might try taking a warm shower or bath, listening to calming music, or walking through a meditation such as on the app “Headspace.” The good news is that exercise during study breaks should help sleep quality as well.

5. “Study Ugly” — Mindset is also important when studying. I was a really hard worker, and I knew that diligence usually paid off (and even on the off-chance that it didn’t, I liked knowing I tried). I didn’t expect myself to be perfect BEFORE the exam— I viewed my study time as a time to make mistakes and to challenge my understanding. I allowed myself to mess up the night before the test and even up to the test, in hopes that for the test itself I would be ready. I didn’t buy it when the teachers would say, “You either know it or you don’t at this point.” This all harkens to Trevor Ragan’s philosophy of “Train Ugly,” based on Stanford professor Carol Dweck’s research on having a “growth mindset” (that is, “I can get this if I work at it”) rather than a “fixed mindset” (that is “I’m either good at this or I’m not”). I “studied ugly.” Allowing myself not to have to know everything when I was studying, I saw myself as working toward that goal, and I saw that goal as something that was attainable (so long as I was in bed by 10).

In summary, when it comes to studying, “Don’t just sit there—bust a move!” Go outside, visualize empowerment, get good sleep, and be tolerant of your own imperfections. And, hopefully, with some of these tips, the process of studying will be both effective and even a little fun.

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