Thursday, 28 April 2011

Revising for exams

As the weather improves, for many young people exams loom. In the UK, GCSEs, AS levels and A levels are a big reality check for most 16 to 18 year olds over the summer, and many face the prospect with apprehension, knowing that the one word they are going to hear a lot of over the coming weeks is REVISION. But what's the best way to revise?

First of all, understanding that revision really means to revise what is (or should be) already known is helpful, and to understand what this might mean for different subjects. Fact-led subjects like the sciences, history and geography, demand just that - facts remembered that can be drawn on to answer the questions that come up in exams. Other subjects require ongoing knowledge, like maths or languages, which is where practicing these skills is helpful. Identifying what each subject is going to need in terms of revision can be a helpful first step.

Then there is the mapping out of a revision timetable that most students find invaluable. Some are able to do this on their own, but for most - and teenagers in particular - this sort of organisation is a learnt skill and requires help, as many can feel overwhelmed.

* Map out what needs to be done, creating a revision timetable with realistic daily goals leading up to the exams, allowing enough time to avoid feeling stressed too close to the actual exams.

* Make sure the notes, past papers, books and other sources from which to revise, are available to revise from. Check with teachers and make sure everything needed is in hand.

* Utilise natural learning styles. Auditory learners find that reading or saying things out loud, recording these and playing them back to listen to, may help things stick. Visual learners find taking notes or making diagrams a useful way to remember as they revise.

* Allow enough uninterrupted time during a revision period to reach a point of concentration where information is actually retained and transferred from working memory into long term memory, from where it can be retrieved when taking the actual exam. Without this process occurring, the possibility of actually remembering what has been revised is limited. This means revision periods of 20-30 minutes minimum, building on this to stay concentrated for up to 90 minute before taking a break (although for most teenagers, this will take practice!).

* Take time to wind down before sleep, however. The brain works best when well-slept, and chronic tiredness just exacerbates feelings of being overwhelmed.

* Cut out distractions - all of them! - during each allocated revision period. This means turning off mobile phones, instant messaging, email, Facebook and other social networking sites, and making revision a primary and exclusive focus. After every interruption, it takes at least 5 minutes to concentrate fully again. Much better to focus exclusively for an hour, then take a 15 minute break, than work for 3 hours with constant interruptions that prevent the brain from retaining information.

* Schools and colleges often run revision sessions which can be a good way of concentrating on subjects that need extra focus.

* Regular exercise in between daily revision sessions - just taking a walk, going for a run, swimming, playing football - are all excellent ways to relieve physical and mental tension, and also increases the brain's ability to work well.

* Eat well - the brain thrives on complex carbohydrates to keep it going, and lots of fluids to stay well hydrated, but avoid highly caffeinated drinks (like Red Bull) that can hype the body up and increase feelings of stress.

For parents, this can be a difficult time as they watch their moody teenager avoid ways of getting down to the revision that they feel is necessary. Wallpaper parenting, as I call it - being around but not too interventionist - can help. Create a calm atmosphere that is conducive to study, keep meals regular, help devise a revision timetable, encourage some time out and bedtime at a reasonable hour, but avoid increasing stress by being heavy handed.

It can be a tricky time, especially as the teenage years often coincide with a general lack of confidence about life, which can be exacerbated by exam stress, but learning how to revise and work independently in preparation is a useful lesson for later studies at college or university.

Schools and colleges are very keen to help their students to do their best, so if in doubt about what you can do to support your child, check in with them about what might be helpful.

Further information on how to concentrate from The Art of Concentration, published by Rodale priced £9.99

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Long hours culture

Research published today suggests that those who regularly work more than 11 hours a day put themselves at increased risk of heart disease. In fact, their risk of heart attack goes up by a whopping 67%, according to a study from University College London which has been tracking the health of 7,000 civil servants since 1985.

This suggests a working week of 55 hours, rather than the 40 hour week one might suppose. Apart from the obvious question about what it was that civil servants found to do for 11 hours a day, it also begs the question as to how effective anyone can be when working such long hours. It's a well-established fact that working long hours is bad for both concentration and productivity, as well as health.

But the UK has the longest working week in Europe. The average hours worked by full timers in the UK is 43.5 a week, in France it's 38.2 hours a week and in Germany it's 39.9. And - get this - their productivity rates are higher, even though they work shorter hours. The European directive is for a maximum of 48 hours a week, and 1 in 8 British workers does more than this.

And a report published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2009 showed that those workers clocking up more than 55 hours a week have poorer mental skills, including short-term memory and ability to recall words, than those working fewer than 41 hours. Researchers concluded that the extreme tiredness and stress engendered by the long hours culture was as bad for the health as smoking, a known risk factor not just for heart disease but also for dementia.

In Japan they call it karoshi and in China they call it guolaosi, but there is no word in English for working yourself to death. But time and time again, it has been shown that not only is working long hours counter-productive in terms of effectiveness, it should now come with a Government health warning.

It's not a happy scenario, but it does provide useful ammunition when countering the demands of the pervasive long hours culture and the blight of presenteeism which is often an attempt to cover-up poor performance.

As Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School says, work smarter not longer - you'll concentrate better and get more done.