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Top tips for study and exam success

Posted on 21 April 2017

Summer term can be a stressful time as you study for exams or work on your thesis. Read our tips to help make it a more pleasant and productive experience.

Image of a studious dog and books to accompany news item with advice on study and revision techniques.

Unsurprisingly, the best way to avoid getting overly stressed is to use your time wisely, get organised and start work well ahead of time.

There are many other things you can do to help yourself and developing some good habits will ensure you perform to the best of your ability.

The tips below are backed up by research - some of them may surprise you.

Take frequent breaks

Psychologists say we can only concentrate properly for 30-45 minutes. There are lots of apps that help you take regular breaks. When you're on your break, do something completely different - move away from your desk, walk about, go to the loo or make a cup of tea!

Eat well

Tempted to boost your energy levels with sugary snacks? Biscuits, chocolate and cake may give you an immediate rush of energy but you could soon come crashing down again. In addition, high blood sugar combined with mentally challenging tasks can increase your cortisol levels and impair your memory. By snacking on slow release high protein foods like yogurt, cheese, fruit and veg or nuts and seeds you can keep your blood sugar levels more even.

Drink lots of water

The human brain is about 85% water and it needs a steady supply to function properly. You will be more focussed and able to think faster with more creativity and clarity if you keep hydrated. (Note: drinking lots of water will also help you take more frequent breaks.)

Time and place

Think about when and where you work best. Are you a morning person or do you work better in the evening? Do you find working in the Library productive or do you prefer to work somewhere else? Everybody is different and what works for someone else may not be right for you. There are lots of different study spaces available across the University. Find what works best for you.

Keep active

Exercising is one of the quickest and most effective ways to de-stress. Regular exercise can actually help your brain work better. Fresh air will clear your head and perk you up, even a short walk will do.


Research shows there are strong links between sleep, learning and memory. You should aim for between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night. Have trouble sleeping? There are lots of things you can do to help yourself. Our sleep web page explains the importance of sleep and gives tips on how to get a good night’s rest.


Relaxation is important for your mental and physical health. It helps you manage stress and anxiety. If you never take time to relax, your cortisol levels may continue to build and interfere with your learning and memory. Find activities that help you relax. It doesn’t have to be meditation. It could be a hot bath, watching a film, dancing or doing something creative. Schedule this down-time into your day.

Useful links

  • Academic pressures
  • Anxiety
  • Exam stress
  • Perfectionism
  • Procrastination
  • Sleep
  • Stress
  • Workshops and groups

Further reading

Psych Central – Taking breaks found to improve attention

The Huffington Post – 5 science-backed ways taking a break boosts our productivity

Harvard Business Review – What you eat affects your productivity

Psychology Today – Why a sugar high leads to a brain low

Science Direct – The effects of drinking water on attention

The Globe and Mail – How drinking more water may boost your short-term memory

In the Loop – Day vs Night: when is the best time to study and why?

Education corner – Finding a good place to study

Harvard Medical School – Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills

The Guardian – How physical exercise makes your brain work better

Harvard Medical School – Sleep, learning and memory

University of York, Department of Psychology – memory reactivations and consolidation during sleep

ReachOut – Why is it important to relax

Psychology Today – Cortisol: why the stress hormone is public enemy No 1