- Perfecting your environment
- Firstly, what is your study environment?
Simply put, one’s study environment is just the conditions in which one studies. So the room, the background noise, the likelihood of being interrupted, time of day, do you study alone or in a group, and so on.
- Does the environment that one is in effect one’s studying?
Definitely! An inappropriate environment can mean the difference between success and failure, because factors in our environment can distract us from the process of learning. In fact, study environment is almost as important as study habits. A great example of a productive study area is REGENT Business School’s library, which is beneficial to students. Great study habits will be seriously undermined by an environment that is not conducive to studying. This is why many students choose to study in libraries. If you walk past the Regent Business School library on any given day you will see a number of students quietly making the most of the facilities to maximise their study environment, as they often find that studying at home can be very distracting.
- What should one focus on?
Firstly, you need to be comfortable, but not too comfortable. Because of the fairly repetitive nature of the studying process one of the biggest challenges can just be staying awake. So lying on your bed, whilst comfortable, is very likely to be tempting fate in this regard. Sitting upright in a comfortable chair is generally recommended.
Also background music can be distracting. Music that is too loud, has too many lyrics or is too new to you can all serve the purpose of distracting your attention from the studying process. Soft music in the background can help create a white noise of sorts, to block out other distracting sounds that you might be exposed to. Research has shown that some types of music, like Baroque – which is a form of classical music by composers such as Bach and Handel, can actually steady the rhythm of the brain to facilitate deep concentration and focus.
- Should you have your phone on you?
This is almost certainly a no-no. The software on our phones is specifically designed to distract our attention, this is how the different apps and social media platforms compete with each other. So when you see that flashing notification light it is almost impossible for us to ignore it, instead it grabs our attention and when we read the notification our brain’s reward us with a hit of dopamine, the chemical in our brains that reward the learning process. This very quickly becomes an addiction. So don’t trust yourself to ignore your phone, rather move it somewhere out of reach and out of sight to minimize the temptation. Research has shown that even the notification itself, even if you don’t open your phone, can be extremely disruptive to productivity.
Additionally, researchers have demonstrated that it takes an average of 23 mins to get fully back on track with the previous task once distracted by a phone.
All of this is to say that whilst our phones can be very powerful providers of information, when we are trying to commit knowledge to memory they need to be as far away from us as possible.
- Should you study alone or in a group?
This depends very much on both you and the people you are looking at studying with. Sometimes this can be helpful as others can help broaden our understanding of the content. But it can also be distracting. Should you choose to go this route it is very important that everyone in the study group is on the same level, in order to avoid situations where one person becomes the tutor and gets distracted from the task of learning. Have a clear agenda and don’t tolerate chitchat once the study group has begun. One needs to be honest with oneself when deciding whether to be part of a study group, as whilst there can be a time and place for them, if the idea is just to socialize instead of studying this will be felt come exam time.
1.6 Anything else one needs to do in order to perfect one’s study environment?
Temperature is also important, and this is in keeping with the comfortable but not too comfortable philosophy. Also know what works for you, if you know that you can’t concentrate when there are people around – find a place where you are alone. If you know that you can’t remember information with background music – turn it off. At the end of the day you want to create a space where you can allow the study skills that we will explore more of later in this series the chance to be most effective.
2. Improving your concentration
- Why does concentration matter?
Concentration is effectively just the ability to focus on the task at hand. There is a relationship between concentration and intelligence, and since intelligence is mainly heritable this means a lot of your ability to concentrate would have been inherited from your parents. But there is definitely room for improving one’s concentration, and that’s what we will be discussing this morning. The better your ability to concentrate, and the longer you can concentrate for, the more meaningful the information you will be able to commit to memory.
- So how does one go about maximising one’s concentration?
As we covered last time, environment plays a big role in controlling for the factors that can undermine our concentration. But there is more that we can do. Make sure that everything you need for your study session is on hand, to prevent yourself having to constantly be getting up and down to retrieve items. Also get rid of distractions, so anything within arm’s reach that you might be tempted to pick up and start playing with (this of course includes your cellphone or any other electronic devices).
Also set yourself goals and reward yourself when you achieve them. So plan to study for an hour, and after an hour allow give yourself a reward that will act as an incentive. Decide before hand on what it is and don’t stray, so if you decide that it will be a piece of chocolate and a 5 minute break, don’t eat 2 slabs of chocolate whilst lying on the couch for half an hour.
- Does food make a difference to concentration?
It definitely does. Foods such as blueberries, dark chocolate, oatmeal, bananas, spinach, eggs have all been shown to improve communication. Water and green tea are good ideas to keep you hydrated and focused. Try to avoid cheese, fruit juice, junk food (especially donuts), and processed grains like rice. Most of these tend to give you short term sugar spikes that impair concentration and cognitive functioning, and have been shown to significantly undermine short and long term memory. Coffee is typically our ‘go-to’ drink to give us a kick, and studies have shown that this mild stimulant can be effective. But too much coffee can make one jittery and distracted, so finding the right balance for you is important.
- Does the time of day make a difference to concentration?
Studies tend to show that we are at our most productive in the morning. Of course this might differ from person to person, in that some people might find that they work best in the late evening when things are quieter and there is less chance of distraction from others. But if you are the type of person that falls asleep easily and tend to be an early sleeper, then you might be setting yourself up for failure by trying to study in the evening. There are 2 important parts here, 1stly knowing what works better for you personally, and then try keep a regular routine – try study at similar times to help your body get into a rhythm to improve your concentration.
- Are there any other things to remember when trying to improve ones’ concentration?
As always know what works for you and develop a study plan around this. Don’t copy your friend’s habits verbatim and expect they will necessarily work for you. Continue to experiment until you know what allows you to focus with the least interruptions for the longest period, then structure your studying around this knowledge. Don’t be too hard on yourself and set unrealistic goals, for instance I will study for 15 hours a day for 2 weeks straight, rather focus on quality of concentration over quantity of hours spent studying.
- Stress Management Part 1 (What is stress?)
- What is stress?
Stress is a state of mental or emotional strain as a result of challenging circumstances, and these challenges can be perceived or real. It’s primarily a physical response, meaning it causes reactions in one’s body.
- So why do we feel stressed?
Stress is ultimately an adaptive reaction, meaning its’ purpose is to protect us. You might have heard of the ‘flight or fight’ response, which is the way that our body responds to danger. In the past where we lived in more primitive existences, and we were threatened by a lion for example, our body would prepare itself to either fight the threat or to escape from it. This means that stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol would be released, resulting in an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, our muscles tense up, our lungs expand to take in more air, non essential functions such as digestion slows down. The purpose of all of this was to give us an extra burst of energy and put us in a state of high alert, and it has probably saved millions of lives over time.
The problem of course is that in our modern, civilised lives we do not have the option of either fighting or fleeing from the perceived threats we face, such as exams. Unfortunately our bodies don’t get this memo, and still react as though we are under attack, so when we are faced with a threat we can experience the same physical state of hyperarousal. So whilst stress can be very helpful in terms of keeping us alive, it can very quickly become dysfunctional.
3.3 Is stress always bad then?
Not at all. Apart from the very real survival benefits that our stress reaction provides, it can also be a very positive motivating force. Think about it, if you didn’t experience the stress of an exam deadline fast approaching, finding the motivation to begin studying could be significantly harder. This is typically referred to as Eustress or ‘good stress’, as opposed to what we normally associate as stress which is called distress, or ‘negative stress’. A life without stress would be boring, but a life with too much stress upsets our emotional equilibrium and undermines our happiness. So understanding our stress response can be very helpful in allowing us to harness the positive benefits it can give us.
- So how does the fight or flight response manifest in modern times?
Well, we still feel a lot of the same physical feelings that we discussed, and these can lead to that overwhelmed, panicky feeling that we tend to associate with stress. Our stress reaction is often learned though, so we tend to act out on these hormonal increases in ways that we have become habits over time. Some people become agitated or aggressive, some people become avoidant and engage in denial, whilst others tend to freeze and feel incapable of taking action to remedy the stress. The inability to effectively manage our stress can lead to our bodies running on a state of high alert for long periods which can have some serious long term health implications, such as cardiovascular diseases and cancer.
- Does stress have any impact on efforts that require mental attention, such as studying for exams?
Unfortunately yes, it has quite a significant impact on studying. The hormonal reactions that the body undergoes when stressed are not associated with deep learning and information storing. The body is preparing itself for physical activity, not mental activity, and as such resources are directed towards this part of the nervous system.
- This all paints quite a bleak picture, is there any hope?
Yes, lots of it. The key with stress management is understanding that as much as stress can be counter-productive, if you have coping skills that are up to the task of dealing with the stress it is then possible to harness the positive effects of stress. It is only when the stress we are facing is greater than our coping skills that our efforts will be undermined by the negative effects of stress. On Thursday we will be going into more detail on practical stress management techniques that will hopefully assist your listeners in increasing their stress management toolbox. It is important to remember that at certain times of our lives it is expected that we will be facing more stress than at other times. Unfortunately for many of your listeners, matric finals is one of those critical times of our lives. Understanding the bigger picture here (which is that this won’t last forever), is key to managing one’s tolerance of the stress that is expected to occur.
- Stress Management Part 1 (Techniques)
- So last time we went into quite a lot of detail regarding the causes of stress and how it affects our minds and bodies, today we are going to discuss how to effectively manage it. Could you give us a brief recap on Tuesday’s conversation?
Essentially stress is your body’s natural defence against perceived danger in that it prepares your body to either fight or flight, so whilst it can be positive if the stress we face is greater than the skills we have to deal with it we will easily be overwhelmed. This means that something that was meant to motivate us will end up undermining our efforts. Today we will be focusing on practical steps we can take to increase our stress management skills.
- Could you take us through some of these skills?
It’s important to remember that stress management is not a one size fits all approach, you have to find what works for you. The first step though is to identify the source of stress in your life. This might seem fairly straightforward, for example you might think ‘I am stressed because I am writing my matric exams’, but there is often more to these answers than we initially think. For example, why do we find writing exams stressful? Is that we are afraid of failure? Disappointing our parents? Disappointing ourselves? Is it that we doubt our ability to succeed? This can be a helpful process of introspection as it allows us to separate internal vs external stressors.
- What are internal and external stressors?
External stressors are the things in our life that are a function of our environment and that we effectively can’t control, in this case the fact that to matriculate one has to write final exams. Internal stressors are the things we do control, for example our beliefs, expectations, attitudes, as well as the way we perceive and interpret the external factors. For example if we have the outlook “I always do badly at exams, I know I am going to perform poorly and my parents are going to be so disappointed in me”, this is going to significantly increase the stress that exam time triggers. These attitudes and beliefs can be very detrimental, but the good news is they are ours and so can be challenged and changed. Effective stress management is about controlling what we can control and finding a way of letting go of the things we can’t control. Part of this is replacing unhealthy coping skills with healthy ones.
4.4 What are some unhealthy ways for dealing with stress?
The obvious ones are smoking, drinking, drugs – but these avoidant mechanisms have a lot in common with other avoidant techniques such as excessive sleeping, binge eating, too much time on your phone, or social withdrawal. There is a time for escaping from stress, but if this is our go-to reaction and the only tool in our toolbox the stress will accumulate and overwhelm us as we are not dealing with the actual stressor.
- What are healthier ways of dealing with stress then?
Exercise has been shown to be a very effective method for minimizing stress. Similarly connecting socially can be a good way of potentially reframing the way we perceive our stress. It is easy to get lost in our own heads when faced with a stressful situation, and accessing your support systems if you are feeling overwhelmed can be a very powerful way of letting off some emotional pressure that might have accumulated without us realizing. Professional counselling can be helpful in this regard, one doesn’t have to wait until things are very bad before reaching out for help. Many institutions offer free counselling for their students or staff, in fact this is much of my role at Regent Business School.
It’s easy to be so focused on studying that we don’t allow ourselves a break. Well timed escapes from the studying process for fun or relaxation with friends, family or by ourselves can reenergise us and allow us to be more productive in the time we are studying. This comes down to effective time management as well, which is the next discussion we will be having in this series.
- Does diet play a role in stress management?
It definitely does. Avoid excessive stimulants like caffeine and sugar, drink lots of water and eat so called brain foods like fish and vegetables. Healthy bodies lead to healthy minds. In this respect make sure you get enough sleep, studying to 3am every morning might be increasing your stress and actually undermining your learning process. A relaxed body and mind will be most receptive to understanding and storing information.
- How does one relax oneself?
There are a number of very helpful relaxation techniques, and these days with the benefits of the internet you can find a lot of valuable relaxation videos on youtube. Deep breathing exercises are the easiest way you can take your body from a heightened state to a more calm state. They are as simple as just taking deep slow breaths through your nose, holding it for a second or two, then releasing it through your mouth. Focus on your breathing and nothing else, some people even like to repeat mantra’s to themselves as they breathe out, for example, “I am releasing all of my stress as I breathe out”. These breathing exercises combined with visualization exercises (which are effectively just imagining and completely immersing yourself in a place where you are happy and relaxed), as well as progressive muscle relaxation exercises can all be very effective in minimizing the physical effects of stress, which in turn contributes to a mind that is more calm and balanced.
- Tips for the exam
- So the time of the actual exam has arrived, how does one make sure one does one’s best during the actual exam?
It doesn’t matter how many hours one has dedicated to studying and revising, the exam itself is where it all counts. So your performance in these specific few hours will either allow your hard work to come to fruition, or will leave you frustrated that you weren’t able to perform to your potential. There is no better way of combatting stress than being prepared. Of course we are not robots and so for the vast majority of us, being absolutely perfect in writing the exam is an unrealistic goal. We will never know everything, but the feeling of being prepared is as good a nerve settler as any sedative.
5.2. So what can one do to guarantee preparedness?
Well, a great way of preparing for the actual exam writing process is practicing on past papers. Not only does this help you with the learning process, but it allows you to practice the actual writing of an exam. This ensures your stamina and concentration will be up to the task come exam time. It also gives you an idea of the type of questions that are likely to come up, meaning you are less likely to be surprised come exam time. It’s a stressful enough couple of hours as it is, and the less surprises you have the more you will be able to perform at your mental best.
- Any other ways you can minimize on these types of surprizes?
It’s always a good idea to wake up early on the day of an exam. Don’t press the snooze button 5 times and leave it to the last moment, but make sure you are up and about before you need to be. Also make sure you don’t have a very late night, our brains are at their best when we are well rested. Have a healthy breakfast that will sustain you throughout the exam, but don’t eat anything risky. Make sure you know the exact time of the exam, as well as the venue. Double check this information the day before, the last thing you need on the morning of the exam is to be running late because you got the time wrong, or to be on time but at the wrong venue. These situations are going to cause panic in most people.
Also make sure that you have all of the necessary equipment needed before leaving for the exam. Carry a number of pens in case one runs out.
- How early should one arrive at the exam venue?
This depends on the time of the exam, and how far you are from the venue. Typically though you’d want to arrive at least half an hour to an hour before. This gives you time to settle in, go to the toilet, practice some relaxation techniques if necessary. Be careful of getting sucked into conversations with panicky peers as they can be distracting and unnecessarily cause you to panic. Stay calm and focused.
- Ok, so now you’re in the exam venue, anything to remember?
Don’t rush, work steadily but remember that in most exams you will have enough time without needing to treat it like a race. Also don’t feel that you need to leave the exam venue before the time is up, use as much time as you can to go back and make changes or additions to your answers if necessary. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the examiner if there is anything that is unclear. Read through the paper quickly first to allow you to plan your time appropriately, and remember you don’t have to answer it in order. You can start with the questions you feel most comfortable with, or that carry the most marks. Just remember to double check that you have not left anything out as you go. Read the instructions carefully, sometimes one gets to choose between answering different questions, if you don’t read this it could easily lead to you answering questions that you don’t need to. If you feel yourself hitting a blank, either move to another section or just start writing, this process will often loosen up the mental block that you experienced.
- Any final advice?
Relax. You’ve worked hard up until this point, and now is the time to allow that hard work to deliver. You know your work, and it’s too late on the morning of the exam to cram any more information. Trust your preparation and don’t overwhelm yourself with unnecessary pressure. Finally, allow yourself a little recovery time after the exam – reward yourself before diving straight back into the final prep for the next exam.
6.1 Tell us a little bit more about what you mean when you refer to ‘time management’?
Time management is just the process of being in control of how you spend your time. It’s often said that are our most precious resource is time, and time management means having the skills to maximise the way we utilise this resource. Good time management allows us to work smarter, and not necessarily harder. Being able to manage our time effectively is a very powerful way of dealing with stress from impending deadlines.
6.2 I imagine that this is an especially important skill to have during preparation for exams?
Absolutely. Research has shown that there is a very strong relationship between effective time management and academic success. Time management is about taking a little bit of time at the beginning of the process to strategize and then plan accordingly. Bad time management is just diving straight into studying very dense material that takes up a huge amount of time but only accounts for a small percentage of one exam. Alternatively it makes sense to work out realistically how much time one has to study during the entire exam period, and then invest that time in the areas that you know your knowledge is lacking, as well as the areas that will count for significant proportions of your final mark. This is a key element of time management, is differentiating between what is urgent, what is important, and acting accordingly.
But far from being just about enhancing academic success, time management is a skill that you will use in all aspects of your life, and contribute to a sense of calmness which can contribute towards success.
6.3 How does procrastination fit into time management?
In many ways procrastination is the enemy of time management. Effective time management is about developing strategies to stop procrastination from undermining your efforts and stealing your time. If you find that you are someone who puts off doing things that need to be done until the pressure has really built up, one of the most effective ways of combating this is scheduling your time in such a way that you account for every minute of your day. This means literally putting pen to paper and planning how you will spend your time from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep. Of course this might not be sustainable during normal periods of your life, but during exams you might find it prudent to do. Factor in realistic breaks, as well as rewards for being able to stick to your plan. If you are still struggling with procrastination, it might be worth asking yourself why? Sometimes we put things off for a reason, and our hesitance to begin a task can be revealing. In the context of exams it could be that we are being undermined by our fears or our anxiety, and honestly confronting these can be very helpful.
6.4 Why are some people better at time management than others?
In all likelihood good time management is a skill that one is not born with, but rather is learnt over time. So we might have learnt our time management from our parents, or maybe from their parenting style, maybe from our school experiences. Either way, if there are aspects of your time management that are not working for you, it is possible to practice more productive techniques until they are entrenched as habits. Counselling can be an option for building these skills if you are feeling overwhelmed by the process.
6.5 So what are some practical time management techniques?
As mentioned, accounting for your time in terms of scheduling your days is very helpful. Often it helps first though to first audit how you are actually spending your time. So before you plan how you would like to spend your time, first assess where your time has been invested typically. You can do this by just making a chart of your average day, hour by hour, and account for your activity during this time. This exercise is often very helpful as it starts to make us realize how much time we actually have at our disposal, which challenges the thought of “I don’t have enough time to do what I need to do”, which is something we often think.
Sometimes we are reluctant to actually plan our time when studying because we are afraid of facing the significant amount of work that might be waiting for us, and as such we prefer not to think about it. This is understandable, but the reality is that it is there and will not magically enter our heads come exam time.
6.6 How much time does one need to relax between studying?
This is very important, as without down time we would burn out quite quickly. So these breaks can be very helpful in revitalizing us and refocusing our mental energy. There is no golden rule as to how long or how frequent these breaks should, but as with most areas that require self-discipline it comes down to self-knowledge and honesty. The rough rule of thumb is ten minutes every hour, with a longer break every couple of hours. You might find that you personally need more time to unwind, that’s OK of course – just make sure that you plan for it accordingly. As we discussed earlier, good time management allows us to work smarter and not just harder.