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 

student in exam


This week the discussion is about listening to your body’s rhythms and learning how to use this knowledge to give you the best advantage during those long exams. Managing that balance between taking time to revise, taking your exams and resting regularly is crucial to enable you to perform at your best. 

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Peaks and troughs 
So what are your body’s natural rhythms? Well the easiest way to think about this is to notice how you’re feeling at certain times of the day. Maybe there have been days when you will have started revising at 8am and you’ve felt super energised and productive, getting into your flow and before you know it 60-80 minutes may have 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 5 or 10 minutes. But instead of taking a break what do you do? Fill up the kettle and flick the switch like your life depends on it, run to the fridge and grab an ice cold can of cola, anything that is going to jump-start you and get you motoring through your revision once again. 

What you’re experiencing is an “ultradian dip”, which is a key function of our ultradian rhythms. Never heard of it before? Don’t worry, not many of us have, but once you take note of these rhythms from within 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. I wonder what benefits you’ll notice first.

Software updates 
Our ultradian rhythm cycles continue throughout the day. Each cycle lasts between 90 to 120 minutes. At the end of each cycle you’ll experience the dip which can last anything between 5-20 minutes. This is where your brain is processing the information it has taken on board and is busy filing and storing this into your memory store. Think of it as when you run a software update on your tablet, you leave the device to update over 10 minutes or so, and when you start using it again it works faster and with new functionality. This is no different from your brain, when you experience a ‘dip’ your brain is processing that information in the REM state, this is the same brainwave state as when you dream during your night’s sleep. 

The optimum learning state 
Another fact for you now, the REM state is the optimum learning state, this is how the brain programs itself to learn instinctive patterns and templates that you will then utilise unconsciously throughout the day. Our brains have evolved to have this functionality to store templates that will keep us safe and enable us to navigate the environment we live in but most importantly to enable us to unconsciously draw on information when we need it – this gives us the ability to remember and apply knowledge.

So what happens if you don’t run that software update on your device? Well, it starts to run slowly, apps crash, bugs aren't fixed and it becomes less and less helpful, everything just seems to take longer doesn't it. And how annoying is it when that webpage finally opens to then crash immediately. This is what happens to all of us when we push through our natural biological rhythms, when we rush for the sugar and caffeine instead of taking a little break. By prolonging our own “software update”, your brain is unable to process what you’ve learnt and file that information, enabling you to access it later. 

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Cramming in the hours before your exam? You’re in the exam hall, you've completed at least half of the paper, you have another question, and all of a sudden you’re desperately trying to remember something, anything at all, just so you can answer the question. Then all of a sudden everything goes blank. That internal 'webpage' you just tried to open has crashed; you frantically try to remember and it just won’t reload. 

Time to reboot and fix those bugs 
Focus on your breathing, take deep breaths from your tummy and make sure your out breath is longer than your in-breath. This will naturally soothe and calm you. Focusing your attention on your breath will give your brain the break it needs to reboot. 

Need a fresh perspective? Consider taking a trip to the loo. It’s expected that we should all be able to perform at our best consistently during a two hour paper, but is this possible based on our rhythms? Never fear, this may be absolutely possible if you’re well rested. But if you’re really drained take some time out, consider walking to the loo, 5 minutes may be all it takes for you to fix that “bug”. By changing your environment and thinking about something else, the chances are that when you return to your desk that internal web browser will fixed and ready to go. 

Top Tips 

  • Work with your natural rhythms and manage your energy throughout the day, concentrate on your revision when your levels are high and revise for no longer than 90 minutes.
  • Always take a 15 break at the end of each revision session to rest.
  • If you have a 1 hour exam make sure you have taken a lengthy break beforehand. Don’t cram and interrupt those natural rhythms. The more rested you are, the more productive you’ll be in the exam.
  • If you have a long exam which is scheduled for longer than 90 minutes and you feel yourself flagging, consider taking some time out, concentrate on your breath or take a quick trip to the loo.
  • Taking 5 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.

If there is one thing you take from this article please remember this. The more rests you take during the day the better you’ll sleep. If you power on through your dip your brain is forced to run the update at a later time. This inevitably will happen when you’re asleep, and will prolong your dream sleep as your brain will use this REM time to store everything it’s learned. This may sound like a quick and easy fix, but what it’s actually doing is impacting 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.

Image of upload and toilet sign used courtesy of Stephen Shankland and Matt Sepping, respectively, via Flickr under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence. Images cropped and resized.

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