Eat, Sleep, Revise, Repeat

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How can we help students prepare for exams more effectively?

This is the first of a series of three blogs aimed at teachers, pupils and parents to be exam ready. The blogs will look at ‘real revision’ and what really works drawing on scientific research and best practice.

Revising effectively is not an ability children just pick up overnight like a superhero waking up to find they now have DNA in common with a spider. Like all habits, revision has to be learned over time. But how do we get even the most truculent teenagers to form this habit? Sometimes all it takes is a little nudge…

We all want the best for the children in our care. Whether we’re teachers or parents, we want to be able to give them the best guidance about everything. But when it comes to revision, what actually works? And when we know what works, how do we get them to actually do it?

A nudge in the right direction

Underpinning everything is nudge theory; the Nobel-prize winning idea that spending time trying to make people change their behaviour is often a waste of time. Instead, we need to nudge them in the right direction. Change needs to be made irresistible. It’s more effort not to do something than do it. Like getting people to opt out of organ donation instead of having to opt in. Most people can’t be bothered to fill in the form so they opt in by default. It’s also why supermarkets put tempting treats by the checkouts. It’s easier to give in that to resist, even though we know we probably should.

We are what we eat

We all know the benefits of a balanced diet and we also all know that when we are under pressure or feel stressed, we start craving junk food like crisps and chocolate bars. And yet these have been proven to ruin memory recall. Sugary foods also give us energy in the short-term but after a couple of hours, we crash.

Snacks of nuts and seeds sharpen people’s minds when they need to revise. Yes, they aren’t as exciting, but they release energy more slowly, which helps us avoid the crashing effect of sugar. Fruit contains natural sugar but it’s still better for us than crisps and chocolate. Bananas have been shown to be the best for exam performance.

The breakfast club

Nudge your children by providing them with the right food before a revision session, and especially on the day of an exam itself. You’ll know best how far to push this. Personally, I draw the line at muesli (yuck), but slow-release cereal like granola might be a winner (as long as it’s not packed with sugar). Just don’t make them go cold turkey.

Remember: we are nudging. So denying them junk food entirely is not a good way to form effective habits, at least initially. Explain that they can have the sweets and crisps afterwards, as a reward, when they have earned them. Whatever they have for breakfast, do not let them skip it entirely. This would be the worst thing they could do. Many schools run breakfast clubs to prevent this from happening, but do they scrutinise their menus rigorously enough?

Energy drinks do NOT give us wings

The NHS are unequivocal in their opinion of energy drinks: they are “unnecessary and unsuitable” for children. They are especially damaging for children who are trying to study as these make our brains behave completely differently. They will get a sugar high crash and the massive amounts of caffeine will make it harder to concentrate.

I’m at risk of being a hypocrite when I talk to any child about caffeine, often with a cup of coffee in my hand. But reading NASA’s research into this is what made me cut back. I’m not really sure how ethical it is to get spiders high (or low) on drugs, but that’s exactly what they did. They pumped a variety of drugs into glass cases, ranging from stimulants (Benzedrine) to depressants (Chloral hydrate) and those which can have both effects (marijuana). They also gave them caffeine. And then watched while the drug-addled spiders made webs. The results were horrifying, especially for the caffeinated spiders – the spider webs were all over the place!

I show pupils the pictures of these webs in assemblies. It’s just another simple nudge which helps the message sink in: lay off the caffeine.

The most commonly used drug in the world

Many schools ban energy drinks and responsible parents keep an eye on how much tea and coffee their children are consuming, but many people just ignore the science behind the most commonly used drug in the world.

Perhaps it’s because caffeine makes us feel like we’re waking up and becoming more alert. But it’s not the reality. Caffeine is a diuretic too, which means it draws water out of us and makes our brains less active. It also sends us to the toilet more frequently. Perhaps nudge children with this: they don’t want to be the one person who has to be escorted to the toilet by the invigilator.

Bring a bottle

Boring as many people find it, water is always best. Sipping water throughout an exam is strongly recommended as it keeps the brain hydrated. Just remind them to bring it in a clear bottle with the label removed so they don’t breach exam rules.

In part 2, I will be exploring how sleep has a huge impact on our memories and our emotions – both of which need to be well-managed if our children are to be successful in exams.

David Lowbridge-Ellis

David Lowbridge-Ellis has 15 years experience in the classroom and has been a senior leader for more than 10 of those. Deputy Head Teacher of Barr Beacon School, he is responsible for CPD, staff well-being, quality of teaching, parental engagement, equality and diversity. An SLE for assessment, he has worked with many schools, in the UK and worldwide, to slash their marking burdens whilst improving feedback to pupils. He is most passionate about leading change (the focus of his Masters degree) and, in his time away from education, writes a travel blog with his husband.

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