There are certain things we know we need to do when it comes to preparing for exams: create summary notes, work with the syllabus, attend revision classes, manage exam nerves, get plenty of sleep, etc.
These are the obvious, big-ticket exam preparation items.
But there are less obvious (and slightly bizarre) things we can also do to help us excel in exams. For instance, looking at pictures of cute baby animals, wearing no shoes when you study and acting like you’re a boss may make a subtle yet noticeable difference to your studies.
Below I list 10 of the most bizarre but potentially effective exam hacks I have come across to date. Combined with solid revision and a study plan, these strategies may help boost your exam results.
1. The power of cute things
Researchers from Hiroshima University found that looking at pictures of cute baby animals helped participants to perform better on tasks that required behavioural carefulness.
Why the improvement in performance from simply looking at pictures of cute puppies?
Basically, cute puppies make us feel good, which impacts on our ability to pay attention and concentrate.
To boost your ability to pay attention, perhaps consider placing some cute objects or pictures in your study space. For instance, these little Japanese monkey toys give me my daily dosage of cuteness.
2. Kick off your shoes before you open that textbook
I always thought that wearing shoes when I studied made me more productive. But it turns out I may be wrong.
I recently discovered some research from Bournemouth University that suggests NOT wearing shoes is more effective for boosting study outputs.
The theory is when you kick off your shoes, you feel more relaxed. The more relaxed you feel, the easier it is for you to learn information.
3. Use a rain simulator: Trick yourself into thinking it’s raining
Anecdotal evidence suggests many students find it easier to focus on their exam revision and assignments when it’s raining outside.
The sound of rain may have a similar effect to kicking off your shoes: it relaxes us.
Additionally, you’re able to focus more intensely because your mind isn’t thinking about all the other glorious things you could be doing outside (after all, when it’s raining the idea of going outside isn’t very appealing to most people).
But what do you do when it’s a beautiful day? Close your curtains and put on a rain simulator such as ‘Rainy Mood’.
The beauty of listening to the sound of rain with a rain simulator is there are no lyrics to distract you, which helps you to stay focused on the task at hand.
4. Listen to movie soundtracks when you study
Some people argue that you shouldn’t listen to any music when you study. The fear is it will distract you.
Indeed, some types of music can be really distracting. But this is why you need to choose your songs carefully. And preferably, choose a movie soundtrack.
Why a movie soundtrack and not some other music?
The beauty of most movie soundtracks is that they contain no lyrics. The music is designed to help you focus on what is going on in the movie scene and not distract you from that.
I finished writing my PhD thesis by listening to two movie soundtracks from ‘Spotlight’ and ‘The Big Short’. I noticed that listening to this music helped motivate me to keep writing for much longer than I would have if I had been working in silence.
So go experiment with some movie soundtracks. The most important thing is that you enjoy the music. Otherwise, the music won’t have such a motivating effect.
5. Write down your exam worries
A study by Ramirez and Beilock (2011) found that students who spent just 10 minutes writing down their worries about taking a test performed better on the test than other students.
The simple act of putting our anxieties down on paper (e.g. “I’m scared that I’m going to fail”) appears to free up our brainpower so you can easily retrieve the information you need to answer the exam questions.
6. Act like a boss: Strike a power pose
This may be the easiest thing you can do to manage your anxiety and boost your confidence levels before taking an exam: pose like a boss for 2 minutes.
Research by Carney, Cuddy and Yap (2010) found that striking a power pose for 2 minutes led to increases in confidence and a sense of power and decreases in stress levels.
But before you go striking a power pose outside the exam room, stop yourself.
Researcher Amy Cuddy suggests striking power poses is best done in a toilet cubicle to avoid looking like an arrogant fool (my words, not hers).
7. Reboot your brain with a siesta
Findings from a study by Walker and his colleagues show that taking a 90-minute siesta after an intense learning session improves our retention of information and our capacity to learn (Anwar, 2010).
The researchers of this study explain that the reason why taking a nap helps is because it “clears the brains short-term memory storage and makes room for new information”.
Just be careful with the length of your naps though. Make sure you set a timer to make sure you don’t oversleep and wake up feeling groggy and disoriented.
8. Give yourself a mental break by watching a cat video
Watching funny cat videos may not be as bad as we think.
A study by Cheng and Wang (2015) found that after doing something boring, being exposed to something funny allowed people to work for twice as long and be more engaged with the material than people who had watched videos about nature and business management.
The point is you need to give yourself a mental break when you’re engaged in exam revision (particularly if the content is really boring and dry). As Cheng states:
“Humor is not only entertaining but also replenishing. Individuals engaging in activities that require persistence may benefit from exposure to humor”.
9. Eat nuts and berries
We can learn a lot from our rodent friends. There have been several studies involving rats that have found “the synergy and interaction of all of the nutrients and other bioactive components in nuts and berries can have a beneficial effect on the brain and cognition” (Pribis & Shukitt-Hale, 2014).
Armed with this information, one of the top students a few years ago stated he ate a punnet of blueberries everyday leading up to his exams. He said it made a difference. I guess you won’t know unless you try.
10. Forgive yourself for procrastinating
If you procrastinate when it comes to preparing for exams, don’t beat yourself up.
We think that being hard on ourselves will help swing us into action, but it actually has the opposite effect. It diminishes our motivation.
When you realise you’ve left things to the last minute and find yourself reading blog posts on bizarre exam hacks to get through, give yourself a break. Yes, you stuffed up. But you are human.
Forgive yourself and focus on the next specific task you need to do.
Anwar, Y. (2010). An afternoon nap markedly boosts the brain’s learning capacity. Retrieved 7 September 2016, from http://news.berkeley.edu/2010/02/22/naps_boost_learning_capacity/
Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J., & Yap, A. J. (2010). Power posing brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 21(10), 1363-1368.
Cheng, D., & Wang, L. (2015). Examining the energizing effects of humor: The influence of humor on persistence behavior. Journal of Business and Psychology, 30(4), 759-772.
Espinoza, J. (2016). Schoolchildren with no shoes on ‘do better and behave better in the classroom’, research shows. Retrieved 9 September 2016, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2016/05/23/schoolchildren-with-no-shoes-on-do-better-and-behave-better-in-t/
Nittono, H., Fukushima, M., Yano, A., & Moriya, H. (2012). The power of kawaii: Viewing cute images promotes a careful behavior and narrows attentional focus. PloS one, 7(9), e46362.
Pribis, P., & Shukitt-Hale, B. (2014). Cognition: the new frontier for nuts and berries. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 100(Supplement 1), 347S-352S.
Ramirez, G., & Beilock, S. L. (2011). Writing about testing worries boosts exam performance in the classroom. Science, 331(6014), 211-213.