Why an exam toilet break may get you the A* grade you deserve

Taking a mental break could help – even when you're against the clock

Managing the balance between productivity and rest is the key to performing at your best.

Whether you’re revising or sitting in an exam hall, taking some time out can work wonders for your brain power, memory recall and concentration levels.

TSR member whatashame3 says that, in a long exam, "going to the toilet can be good between essays/questions as it lets your brain take a mini-break and get itself back together."

This mini-break could be exactly what you need to remember vital information, relax and take control, and ultimately bump up your grade.

Need a fresh perspective?

It goes without saying that it’s a little easier to take breaks when you’re not sitting timed paper under strict conditions. Even so, if you find yourself feeling drained in an exam hall, consider taking a trip to the loo.

As long as you’re well rested, performing consistently at your best for a two-hour paper is absolutely possible. But if you start to flag, five minutes may be all it takes for you to fix the bug.

Taking five minutes out of your exam may seem like risky business, but by giving yourself some time to refresh you’ll find yourself being more productive at the later stages of the exam.

By changing your environment and thinking about something else, the chances are that when you return to your desk you’ll be ready to go again.

Other ways to reboot

When you’re studying for exams, take regular breaks between revision sessions; it will make you more productive and help you sleep better. More on this at the end of this article.

Concentrate on revising when your energy levels are high, and revise for no longer than 90 minutes at a time. When you notice yourself feeling drowsy, stop for a minimum of 15-minutes.

Take a lengthy break before going in to an exam. Don’t try to cram at the last minute; the more rested you are, the more productive you’ll be.

Remember also to focus on your breathing during an exam to give your brain a break. Take deep breaths from your stomach and make sure your exhale is longer than your inhale. This will naturally soothe and calm you.

Why we experience peaks and troughs 

Do you know what your body’s natural rhythm is? The easiest way to find out is to notice how you feel at different times of the day.

Perhaps there has been days when you started revising at 8am and you felt energised and productive, getting into your flow and before you know it an hour or more has passed. Feeling good, you carry on and before long you start to slow down, you notice you’re re-reading the same sentence and you fantasise about curling up and having a little snooze, just for five or 10 minutes.

But instead of taking a break, you decide to fill up the kettle and flick the switch like your life depends on it, or run to the fridge and grab an ice-cold can of Coke –anything that is going to jump-start you and get you motoring through your revision once again.

What you’re experiencing is called an ultradian dip, which is a key function of our ultradian rhythms. Once you take note of your natural rhythms and start working with them, you’ll notice how much more energy you have throughout the day, enabling you to be so much more productive.

The optimum learning state

Our ultradian rhythm cycles continue throughout the day. Each cycle lasts between 90 and 120 minutes. At the end of each cycle you’ll experience a dip which can last anything between five to 20 minutes. This is where your brain is processing information it has taken on board and is busy filing and storing this into your memory store.

When you run a software update on a device, you leave it to update for 10 minutes or so, and when you start using it again it works faster and with new functionality. This is no different to your brain; when you experience a dip your brain is processing information in an REM state, which is the same brainwave state as when you dream during sleep. 

Another fact for you: the REM state is the optimum learning state. This is how the brain programmes itself to learn the instinctive patterns and templates that you use subconsciously throughout the day.

Our brains have evolved to have the ability to store templates that will keep us safe and enable us to navigate the environment we live in. They also allow us to unconsciously draw on information when we need it – so we can remember things and apply our knowledge.

The more rested you are, the better you'll sleep

What happens when you don’t run a software update on a smartphone or computer? It starts to run slowly, apps crash and bugs remain unfixed. This is what happens to all of us when we push through our natural biological rhythms, when we rush for sugar and caffeine instead of taking a break.

By prolonging your own software update, your brain is unable to process what you’ve learnt and file that information for you to access later. This could mean going blank in an exam situation, trying frantically to remember something.

This is why taking regular breaks will improve the quality of your sleep. If you power on through, your brain will be forced to run the update while you’re asleep, prolonging your dream sleep as your brain will use the REM state to store everything it has learned.

While it may sound like a quick and easy fix, it will impact on your deep sleep state. This is the time when your body repairs itself and replenishes those chemicals that give you that get up and go each morning – vital to keep you motivated during your exams.