It’s block-time in Belgium! Exams are coming up soon, many of us are starting next week with their first exam(s). The lock-down and pandemic don’t stop us from getting a degree – but they make it so much more difficult …
Now with the lock-down going on, you’d think technically we’d be at an advantage to doing the online lessons at our own pace, doing the reading in the sun with a coffee/tea in a relaxed manner, and feeling more confident about emailing professors with questions because we couldn’t ask them during classes. Shouldn’t we be even better prepared now than during other block-phases before this lock-down?
Like I said, you’d think. Technically.
What I’ve been getting from most people is this: studying, focusing, finding the time and energy to put into listening to lectures and getting through the coursework all n your own is hard. Students who got to go home to their families, who can speak of some sort of financial security in this situation, who have a tight social circle to help them maintain not only mental health but also some structure to their lives and maybe give an extra push when dealing with university things – they have it easier to prepare. The rest, which makes up the majority of foreign students, don’t have that safety net, so their preparations are a lot harder.
But what can actually help with preparing for the exams? We have some tips for you, from beginners to grasping-at-their-last-straws-veterans:
Tip #1: start with short periods of studying time.
Begin with 30-45 minute sessions, then take a break. Reward yourself during that break by getting some tea, a snack, going to the bathroom, or going to your window to check out the world and take deep breaths of fresh air for 5-10 minutes. Try to walk up and down the stairs (if you have access to any), or try to walk 100 steps in place. Get some bloodflow to your brain and legs, to avoid pins-and-needles-symptoms.
Tip #2: Set achievable goals.
Does your to-do-list say “start and finish course xyz” for one day? Girl, you ain’t got that time even if you have the drive and motivation. Give your brain a chance to retain the information for longer than 24h, or until you go to sleep next. Set realistic and achievable goals, as in watching two lectures a day and doing the readings for both (if it’s 1-2 articles or chapters per lecture. if more, spread it out more). Don’t work towards speed, work towards sufficiency. If you end up feeling frustrated and anxious from not achieving your unrealistic goals of the day, you just block yourself from progressing both today and tomorrow. Setting aside 4 to maximum 8 hours per day to study is quite doable nowadays, unless you have a job that keeps you busy. Don’t rush and don’t force anything – your brain is working under a lot of stress right now, and retaining extra information can be like trying to catch butterflies with a holey sieve – it might stick, it might not. The more stress, the bigger the holes.
Tip #3: Get active to learn things. You heard me.
Tiring out your body helps your brain focus. That’s the very by-the-by-way of saying that the endorphins your body releases during exercise help it retain information. Besides that, a body that has already moved also feels less fidget-y energy to distract you while reading. Always sitting is bad for your concentration, mental and physical health, and brain activity. Last but not least, and on a weirdly related note: If (like me, and if so then I’m sorry) you are a predominantly sensomotoric learner (learning by doing is our main jig), using a ball to throw it against the wall or kneading it while going through info-sheets can help. Or walking around the room, or sitting on a stationary bike. If you’re predominantly an audial learner, seclude yourself and say things out loud back to yourself. Listen to the professor talk again and again and again. Discuss the topics with someone. Visual learners can get creative with colours and markers and mindmaps – make posters! Pretend like you’re not studying for an exam but you’re preparing for a presentation instead. What would you put into the presentation?
Tip #4: Don’t do it alone if that doesn’t work for you.
Libraries were usually full of students who queued up from 7am every weekday to study for hours on end in the libraries of Leuven.
Whether they actually got all that more studying done, I really beg to differ, but that’s not what this tip is about. Why? Because making the agreement to sit down and start studying with someone creates two things: 1) you feel obliged to uphold your promise to your friend so you will do the thing, and 2) mutual support keeps you motivated and focused.
In person, this is an absolute no-go for safety reasons right now, but have you heard of Google Hangouts, or Zoom meetings, or Skype calls? Gather your course materials, call a friend, put on the webcam, and they will keep you company while you hold each other to your words. And if you happen to be studying the same subject, you can confer with each other on things you don’t fully understand yet.
Keep an eye out on the page and facebook group of Pangaea, because we are also in the process of creating study rooms for you to gather in virtually!
Tip #5: Eat right, sleep well and enough, and take care of yourself.
It seems like everyone’s favourite cure-all-excuse but I ask you honestly: Have you ever met someone who sleeps 7+ hours a night of good sleep, who eats their daily doses of vegetables and fruits, and gets some sort of physical activity in every few days, and who isn’t looking, feeling and doing really well? Cause I sure haven’t and I’d like you to point those people out to me. I’m a psychologist, I’d like to study those cases that so heavily go against the consensus of scientific research.
All jokes aside though, making sure you eat a diet that includes loads of veggies and fruits, stop drinking coffee or dark tea after 5pm, get to bed on time and wake up late enough, and regularly move your body – it helps so much. To keep up focus, to feel better, healthier, and happier, and to in general be more efficient and productive, and resilient to outside stressors. Cut corners and set priorities on certain (the above mentioned) things. Don’t just make choices, make the right choices for yourself in the long run. 5 hours of sleep a night, scientifically speaking, is severe sleep deprivation. A very small percentage of people is actually proven to be able to run on that alright. You’re not one of them. Trust me.
Tip #6: Reach out when necessary.
The KUL offers a lot of helplines. Whether it’s for your own mental and physical health, someone else’s, or your own peace of mind and anxiety – just reach out. Know that you can and should reach out when it is necessary. Professors these days are more than happy to answer your questions via email, and respond to them quite quickly in most cases. Seeing as none of us will actually get to graduate by the end of June, what’s the harm in spreading exams into the 3rd exam period? If it relieves some of your burdens and stress, then go for it. Financial aid can be worked out with the university. “Money can always be bought somehow, time however cannot” my wonderfully wise ex-teacher neighbour told me the other day. And he was right. It’s just really not the time to burden yourself even more to the point of breaking – take care of yourself before you can take care of others. No degree is worth your mental health and stability for.