The VCE. Rough Road Ahead.
Part 2: Surviving It.

May is a really challenging month for Year 12 students. In almost all cases, there‘s a SAC in every subject, and to make matters worse, most come in at the same time, creating huge workloads and stress levels for VCE students.

When the SACs do start coming in, what should students do to prevent burn out and still get the best possible marks

Get Sufficient Sleep Each Day

Your brain doesn’t consolidate and process all the information you learned/reviewed throughout the day until you fall asleep. Most of the processing gets done during the REM periods of sleep, and the more REM sessions you have, the more effectively information is stored in long term memory. However, humans don’t spend much time during the first 6 hours of sleep in REM phase, so if you’ve been doing a lot of learning and you need to maximise how much you’ll remember the next day, you need to aim for about 9 hours of sleep on such days. If your days aren’t stressful and you haven’t been committing a lot of information to memory, then you should be able to get by on 7.5 hours of sleep on most days. Not only is sleep essential for memory, and for the retrieval and application of learned information, it plays a massive role in how effectively you can deal with stress. Also – we make more frequent “dumb” mistakes when we haven’t had enough sleep than otherwise.

Pace Yourself Carefully

Don’t go rushing into your SACs all fired up and putting in monstrously long hours of study – you’ll just fizzle out before half your SACs have been completed. Work at a consistent, steady, sensible pace and you’ll avoid the exhaustion that most students face and of course, perform to a better standard that you would otherwise.

Choose Wisely

If you have to choose between more study or more sleep remember that the vast majority of people are much better off with an extra hour of sleep instead of an extra hour of studying. No if, buts or maybes about it – this has been proven time and time again.

Boost Dopamine Levels when you Hit a Slump

If you find you’re getting tired or losing motivation, engage in a rhythmic activity for a few minutes i.e. Activities where physical movements are performed to a rhythm or steady beat. Great examples include push-ups, skipping, star jumps, walking, hopping, dancing. And if you don’t have any energy to spare, then drumming is an excellent option. Rhythmic activities stimulate the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, giving you a natural high, increasing alertness, concentration levels and motivation! This response has been very well researched and documented.

Pace Your Brain

Learning for extended periods of time depletes the brain of the neurotransmitters required for efficient processing and memory storage. Research shows that the average student can’t commit information to memory effectively on the same subject for more than 4 consecutive hours – even with 10 minute breaks every hour. After 4 hours, efficiency and memory begin to suffer. Therefore, change subjects or tasks every few hours and try not to commit
information to memory for more than 4 hours at a time.

Take Regular Breaks – Even if You Don’t Feel You Need To

When you’re preparing for tests and exams, it’s important to take a 10-minute break every hour. Use this time to relax or exercise, or to engage in an activity you enjoy – as long as it doesn’t involve technology. There is only one exception to this rule – you can use a device to play music as loud as you please. Not only do breaks give your mind a rest from learning, doing something different will actually improve brain function. For example, loud music accompanied with a smile or laughter and some dance moves will boost the levels of a number of neurotransmitters that are involved in memory, learning, energy levels and motivation.

Keep Energy Levels High by Regularly Exercising in Short Burst of Time

Spend as much time as you can every hour doing some form of exercise – even a couple of minutes will noticeably increase energy and motivation levels. Exercise produces endorphins – chemicals that have a calming effect – which helps us to combat the negative effects of stress. Very importantly, it also stimulates the release of various neurotransmitters that are needed for effective brain functioning.

Reset Your Body and Restart Your Day

Most people have an early morning wake up routine that their body comes to expect and rely upon to get started. As an example, you may have developed the habit of taking a nice long relaxing shower on wakening or eating a hearty breakfast and of course, the hot strong cup of coffee. Skipping this routine usually results in many people feeling sluggish and unable to perform to their usual standard and pace until they’ve had their breakfast or the all-important caffeine fix. The human brain is an amazing organ and will associate almost anything that is regularly presented at the same time with something else. A classic example is Pavlov’s Dogs.

You can use a different routine that your body has established to make your study sessions after a long day at school easier to face and much more profitable. As the majority of people shower soon after waking up, most of us have associated a shower and a change of clothing with the beginning of a fresh new day. So to combat general tiredness that’s associated with a long day, take a 30 minute break to have something to eat and drink once you get home from school, then take a nice long shower and change into something you’d wear on a non-school day. You’ll feel as if you’ve started a new day, making it much easier to commit to and maintain continued study. Do not be tempted to change into your pyjamas if you want to be productive. Your brain has most likely associated PJ’s with sleep, so unless you have high levels of adrenalin racing through your body, there‘s a good chance that you’ll soon start feeling drowsy and eventually falling asleep!

Losing Concentration? Drink Water

Water is essential for healthy brain function as it’s needed to move neurological signals throughout the brain. Low amounts of water in the blood decreases the speed and efficiency of these signals, affecting learning and retrieval of information. Even mild levels of dehydration (i.e. dry lips and mouth) have the potential to reduce test and examination marks by up to 20%! Therefore, whenever you’re a bit dehydrated or you notice that you’re not concentrating as effectively, drink one glass of water within 5 minutes. Your alertness and energy levels will greatly improve if you’re not sufficiently hydrated. At the very least, the levels of the major stress hormone (cortisol) will drop significantly within 10 minutes and you’ll feel much calmer and more relaxed – which is much better for your body as well as your VCE marks!

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Be Happy!

A good mood makes you 12% more productive, so joke with a study mate, watch a funny cat video, or chat with a friend.

Keep Meals on the Lighter Side

Heavy meals require large amounts of energy to digest and process. Therefore, having a light, healthy lunch often helps to reduce the severity of the mid-day slump.

Tired? Sleepy? Take a Nana Nap

Studies show that high-performing students tend to take naps and that they are highly beneficial to intellectual performance. Naps replenish the levels of brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) involved in memory and learning, making it easier and faster to remember facts when studying. For the ideal power nap, first have a cup of coffee, and then wake up in 20 minutes when the caffeine kicks in. This amount of time allows you to rest without the risk of entering into a deep sleep and waking up feeling even more tired. If you’re feeling particularly tired, take a 90-minute nap (the length of an average person’s sleep cycle) so that your body can enter REM sleep. It is during the REM periods where the mind is replenished, and memories are consolidated!

Avoid the Crash!

Excessive amounts of sugar like that found in soft drinks and fruit juices may give you a short burst in energy, however, the crash or energy slump that occurs thereafter will cause sluggishness and laziness and greatly decrease productivity. Processed foods, and particularly products made from white flour and/or white sugar have a similar effect on energy and productivity levels, so try to eliminate these items from your diet.

Keep Your Study Environment Cool

Warm toasty environments feel cosy and great, but they’re a recipe for sleepiness and a loss in concentration and focus. The cold, on the other hand, will help keep you focused and alert. You are much better off having a window partially open and rugging up with jumpers rather than making your room too warm.

Stressed? Use the 4-7-8 Technique

Breathing techniques such as the 4-7-8 technique offer a quick and effective way of reducing stress. Inhale deeply down into the abdomen to the count of 4, hold your breath to the count of 7 and then slowly exhale to the count of 8. This stops shallow breathing, which is linked to stress and panicking. Furthermore, when your exhalations take longer than your inhalations, your body begins to switch on your parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn will calm you down.

Check back here next week for more great advice.