Are you one of those people who spends more time worrying about revising than actually doing it? And, as a result, are you one of those students who ends up cramming for half the night before an exam? You are not alone. More than half of 13-14 year-olds squash all their revision for an exam into one night. Spoiler alert: If you do this in your GCSEs, your results will be a disaster!
A remarkable number of teenagers do all their revision in bed, rather than sleeping, a study for the Sleep Council recently found. Normally, about ten percent of teenagers have just five or six hours sleep a night, but in the months leading up to revision period, this doubles to 20 percent. And over four-fifths of teenagers surveyed said their sleep is disrupted by worrying about exams. None of this is a recipe for success.
Get some sleep
Sleep is key to good, clear thinking. Longer periods of sleep, at deeper levels, allow the brain to think flexibly and make links between different types of information. We all know this, and teachers and parents are always telling us this, but science is now backing up our sense that sleep is good for cognitive processes. Research from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway University (published in the journal Cognitive Psychology in April) shows that learners are able to remember and consolidate material more effectively if they sleep on the new information. So if you cram the night before, your brain has little time to process the information and won’t remember it as well. It’s much better to revise in chunks, then have a good sleep between revision days.
Professor Kathy Rastle of Royal Holloway explains: ‘There’s a dual mechanism model in the brain. There’s a structure called a hippocampus, which is a rapid learner. It learns individual items or examples rapidly. However, while you are resting, while you are consolidating the information, the hippocampus replays the information and it gradually becomes encoded in the neocortex.’ And that will help you remember and apply information.
This matters for exam revision, Professor Rastle says: ‘When we are revising we are not just trying to remember individual stats, we are trying to extract concepts. Our research shows that you have to have a consolidation period.’ That is, some sleep. And why does extracting concepts matter? Well, imagine the exam paper is full of questions you’ve not revised for. Either your brain goes blank (it’s happened to the best of us!) or it makes connections. It applies an idea from one period of history to another; it tells you that you could use a particular kind of equation to solve a maths question; it brings in a Shakespeare quote you revised under a different heading to illuminate your essay. And all that leads to better grades.
So, don’t keep yourself awake at night worrying about exams. Plan your revision over a period of days or weeks (but don’t waste hours designing a beautiful revision timetable rather than doing the revision!) and that will stop you worrying so much and give you time to sleep and process information. As Professor Rastle says, ‘Learn a little bit today, sleep on it, learn a little bit tomorrow, sleep on it. Cramming and not getting proper rest is probably not going to be a good strategy for acing the exam.’