Ace Your Next Big Exam

By Katie Russell

Do you like to study by cramming the night before big exams? If you’re anything like me, I quickly learned this technique is an awful way to retain information. Studies show that taking intermittent breaks during your long study sessions helps to improve memory and attention drastically.

After a long period of studying, you start to lose focus, and your attention and performance greatly decreases. A similar phenomenon can also be explained with something that occurs in sensory perception: your body becomes habituated to the feeling of clothes on your skin and the stimulus is no longer perceived. The same thing happens with our brains: a constant stimulus, such as studying for long periods of time, is deemed as unimportant1.

A study showed that the longer you want to retain knowledge, the longer your study break should be. Therefore, cramming actually reduces long-term memory2.

Here are four ways to utilize your study breaks and help your brain relax to increase your productivity:


Who doesn’t love a good nap? Plus, your nap is actually going to benefit your focus and memory and increase your performance when studying! Win!

A study by Tietzel and Lack (2002) shows that even a 10 minute nap is beneficial to improve alertness and cognitive performance3. The trick with naps is to ensure that you do not fall asleep for too long. Set an alarm on your phone for 10 minutes or 30 minutes. Any longer than 30 minutes, and you will be interrupting your typical sleep cycle which lasts for approximately 90 minutes.

The optimal range for a study break nap is between 10 minutes and 30  minutes. This short amount of time to let your brain rest and absorb information can greatly improve your memory and cognitive performance. It can also give you an energy boost to power through the rest of your study session.


Various styles of mediation have been shown to reduce anxiety and increase relaxation in those who practice it. Meditation is a simple and inexpensive way to relax and let your mind rest during a study break.

Guided mediation is one style in which one visualizes something that they perceive as relaxing. Mantra mediation is a style where the individual repeats a calming thought, word, or phrase to eliminate distracting thoughts. Mindfulness meditation is a style in which the individual increases their awareness and mindfulness of the present moment. Tai chai is a form of Chinese martial arts in which the individual practices slow movements while deep breathing. Yoga is a popular form of meditation in which the individual practices postured techniques coupled with controlled breathing4.

Regardless of the style that is chosen, the goal of meditation is to focus your attention, control/relax your breathing, and open your mind. All of these factors contribute to the relaxing and calming nature of mediation which can help improve cognitive performance and memory.


Being physically active for just 30 minutes a day can greatly improve your brain’s focus and cognitive performance.

Exercise helps to relieve stress and anxiety because the neurotransmitter GABA is released. GABA is known to reduce anxiety; therefore, GABA reduces stress levels and increases focus5.

You can utilize your study break by exercising, whether it be a short walk or a high-intensity run. Taking a short walk outdoors is an excellent way to relax and clear your mind of the stresses of studying during your break. Exercise of all forms helps to relieve stress and reign in your focus to tackle the remainder of your study session.

No Social Media

If you’re like most people in today’s society (including myself), you are attached to your phone throughout the entire day and check it every time you hear a beep or feel a buzz. What if I told you putting down your phone for the entirety of your study session could help improve your exam scores?

As humans, we seek social connections, and social media sites allow us that connection through our phones. When we connect to social media, we are rewarded by releases of dopamine in our brain. However, an overabundance of dopamine causes hyperactivity in our brain which reduces our focusing capabilities6. Therefore, the more you check your phone while studying, the less you are focusing on the material you are trying to learn.

The more time people spend on social media, the more likely they are to have lower grades and bad study habits. These people are also more likely to be depressed or anxious.

Staying off of social media while studying can greatly improve your focus and cognitive performance by ridding of potential distractions. I know that resisting Facebook or Twitter can be difficult, but it will be worth it when you get that exam back with a high score.



1   Yates, D. (2011). Brief diversions vastly improve focus, researchers find.          Illinois News Bureau. Retrieved  from

2   Cepeda, N., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tests: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(3), 354-380.

3   Tietzel, A., & Lack, L. (2002). The recuperative value of brief and ultra-brief naps on alertness and cognitive performance. Journal of Sleep Research, 11(3):213-8.

4   Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017). Meditation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from

5   Cochran, A. (2013). New study sheds light on exercise’s impact on brain. CBS News. Retrieved from

6   Rock, D. (2012). Your brain on facebook. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

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