When you’ve read the same paragraph 10 times and it’s still as undecipherable as ancient Egyptian, and you’re not studying ancient Egyptian, it’s time to put the books down. Experts say good breaks are a critical part of exam preparation and actually make your brain work better.
Debbie Bruckner, the director of the Student Union Wellness Centre at the University of Calgary, says an overburdened brain stops processing new information. “You’ve got to put it into your short-term memory and then move it into your long-term memory,” she says.
To do that, you need to stop cramming new knowledge into your cranium.
Joanne Mills, a psychologist at Mount Saint Vincent University’s Student Counseling Services in Halifax, says most people can concentrate for 45 minutes to an hour at a time, but then need 15 minutes to rest. She suggests picking your break activity — Facebooking, going for a run — and setting a timer for 15 minutes.
“It’s a cue to your mind — almost a Pavlovian response to pair a signal with refocusing,” she says.
Mills also suggests setting targets and stopping when you’ve reached them. “Some students will take that break even if they haven’t finished what they set out to do and then they don’t really relax or enjoy it because their mind is racing with ‘I must, I should, I have to.'"
If you’re in the flow, ride the momentum until you come to a natural break in the material, then set the timer again and walk to the corner store.
Alternating which books you’re hitting also helps. Work on English for an hour, then switch to math. It’s like exercising multiple muscles at the gym, as different parts of your brain flex for different subjects.
Bruckner says that to maintain a healthy mind-body-spirit temperament in the heat of exam season, sit down with your calendar.
“Make a schedule for the month of April — when your assignments are due, when your final exams are, what the weighting is for each,” she says.