How to focus on studying for your A Level exams

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It’s crunch time for A Level students — exams have resumed for the first time in two years since it was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. This year’s candidates will sit for their papers throughout May and June, with results to be released on August 18, 2022, which will determine their pathways in post-secondary education. If you’re one of them, we’ve got a few pointers on how to focus on studying for your exams.

The science behind concentration

Do you find it hard to focus while you’re neck-deep in books and notes? There’s an explanation on why our brains can’t turn on the concentration switch at will, and science backs this up. Shifting between holding and retaining information while blocking out distractions is regulated by a mechanism called executive functioning. Researchers at Harvard University refer to it as an “air traffic control” system which helps us plan, focus, and juggle multiple tasks. 

Studying demands full use of your executive functioning, but not everyone’s system operates in the same way. Factors like your genetics, upbringing, and environment play a role in its development. Students with learning disabilities might find it hard to regulate their attention and memory, which makes focusing doubly hard. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible though; the key to focus on studying for your exams is finding the right tools that work for you.

How to focus on studying

A quiet, calm environment improves your mood, leading to better concentration when studying. Source: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP

Here’s how to focus on studying for your A Level

Fix your environment

Remove distractions before you even pop a book open. It’s easier said than done, but noise and clutter won’t help you with attentiveness. Your physical space will affect your mental state, so minimise distractions as best as you can. It could mean putting your phone in another room, studying in a quiet, open space, or using noise-cancelling headphones to filter diversions.

Create a “brain dump” list

Feeling overwhelmed? Throw all your racing thoughts onto a paper with a simple “brain dump” list. You won’t know what to focus on when you’re trying to cram too much information at once. Removing the mental block by externalising it in words will help you to see what’s important. Don’t worry about structuring your thoughts — that can be sorted once you’ve dumped your ideas on a piece of paper (or word doc).

It’s also a good mindfulness method to track distractions while you’re studying. Keep a note on when you feel your attention is waning and where your mind wanders, then pull your thoughts back to the present. This helps you identify your study patterns and teaches you to be more aware when it happens again.

How to focus on studying

Tracking your distractions creates a habit of mindfulness so you can devise strategies to minimise distractions. Source: Bryan Steffy/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP

Use time blocks

The Pomodoro Technique has gained traction among students, and there’s a good reason why. It creates a sense of urgency for us to complete critical tasks as much as we can in short bursts of time, interlaced with breaks in between. For example, you can work for 25 minutes, then stop for a five-minute break, and continue this cycle several times before taking a longer break.

Some studies have shown that maintaining intense focus and performance range anywhere from 10 to 52 minutes, so you can customise your own Pomodoro cycle to fit your productivity.

Create interest when studying

Spicing things up with how you study can improve your attention and memory. Instead of repeating the same method interminably, set up a reward system for task completion. Use habit-tracker apps such as Habitica or Forest App to gamify your review sessions, so each task checked off your list feels like a quest. These apps are also designed to help you create a new habit system so you can learn better in the future.

Eat and sleep well

No snack-bingeing and all-nighters — proper rest and nutrition are essential for brain health. You can’t focus if you’re groggy from sleep deprivation or not getting enough fuel for your body. The National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep for the brain to sustain memory, while healthy dietary patterns with enough protein, fruits, leafy greens, and legumes are essential for you to retain what you’ve studied.

 





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