Completing VCE can sometimes feel like a juggling act as you try to contend with school, friends, sport, family, chores and part time jobs. Fortunately, there are a number of highly effective things you can do to help you flourish in your final year of secondary school.
Healthy minds, healthy bodies
- Diet. Your diet is food for your brain. Your diet has a significant impact on your alertness, cognition and mood.
- Enjoy. Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from these five food groups every day:
- Vegetables and fruit. Get plenty of vegetables of different types and colours, and legumes/beans.
- Grains. Mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties, such as breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, polenta, couscous, oats, quinoa and barley.
- Protein. Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, and legumes/beans.
- Dairy. Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or their alternatives, mostly reduced fat
- Water. Make sure you get plenty of water.
- Limit. Limit intake of foods containing saturated fat, added salt and added sugars, including food and drinks that:
- are high in saturated fat such as many biscuits, cakes, pastries, pies, processed meats, commercial burgers, pizza, fried foods, potato chips, crisps and other savoury snacks.
- contain added salt.
- contain added sugars such as confectionary, sugar-sweetened soft drinks and cordials, fruit drinks, vitamin waters, energy and sports drinks.
- Enjoy. Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from these five food groups every day:
- Exercise. Try to get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day. Regular exercise improves alertness, attention, motivation, stimulates the growth of new neural connections and reduces the level of stress hormones in your body!
- Sleep. Get at least eight hours of sleep a night. Sleep restores and repairs the body and helps you to recover from fatigue. It plays a crucial role in the formation of neural pathways, cognition and the consolidation of new memories. To promote sleep, get to bed at the same time every night, turn off devices at least an hour before sleep, limit your consumption of sugar before bed and ensure your room is cool and dark.
- Stress. Diet, exercise and sleep play a crucial role in dealing with stress. There are also a number of other techniques you can use to manage area.
- Solution focused. Take action to address the underlying issue that is causing your stress.
- Emotion focused. Journaling, practicing gratitude and taking a growth mindset are all strategies that help deal with stressful emotions.
- Relaxation. Meditate and do breathing exercises when you feel stress building.
- Self-soothing. Listen to music, take a bath, or read a book to sooth yourself.
- Acceptance. In some cases, you may need to accept that there are big events in your life—such as the pandemic—that you simply cannot control.
Study habits, skills and attitudes
Studying effectively doesn’t mean studying more. It is about improving your habits, skills and attitudes when it comes to school work.
- Schedules. Creating a schedule is one of the most powerful ways you can organise your time. It allows you to see how much time you’ve got during the day and how much you can dedicate to study. The process of making a schedule is also a form of pre-commitment. Pre-commitment, according to Johann Hari in Stolen Focus, turns out to be a “strikingly successful” way to achieve your goals. Setting aside time to study means you are less likely to procrastinate. Apps like Forest are a good way to stick to your scheduled study time and not succumb to instant gratification. Creating a schedule also allows you block in activities that you enjoy, such as catching up with friends, reading a book or watching TV as rewards for completing your study goals. When you’re creating a schedule, don’t forget to include opportunities for exercise and mind wandering. Allow time to wind down and allow your mind to wander. During this time, your brain is far from dormant and its ‘default mode network’ buzzes with activity. According to Johann Hari in Stolen Focus, “the more you let your mind wander, the better you are at having organised personal goals, being creative, and making patient, long-term decisions.”
- Lists. A considerable amount of research suggests that the to-do list is an incredibly effective way to get stuff done: write down the tasks paper, do them, and cross them off the list. According to Psychology Dr David Cohen, lists “dampen anxiety about the chaos of life; they give us a structure, a plan that we can stick to; and they are proof of what we have achieved that day, week or month.”
- Study space. Set up a space at home that is free from distractions. Face your desk away from any distractions, such as the television. If you study in your bedroom, face your desk away from your bed. One behavioural trick advocated by psychology lecturer Marty Lobdell, who is noted for his popular lecture Study Less, Study Smart, is to have a dedicated lamp that you only turn on when you’re studying. When you sit down to study, you turn on the lamp. When you’re not studying turn it off. Over time, you will condition yourself to focus when the lamp is turned on.
- Study time. Divid your study time into chunks of 20 – 30 minutes. When you’re starting out, this is probably the amount of time you can study before you start to zone out. Use a timer to measure how long you study before zoning out. The aim should be to build up your ability to study for longer periods of time.
- Take breaks. When you feel yourself start to zone out, take a 5 – 10 minute break. As William S. Helton, Professor of Human Factors and Applied Cognition notes: “We don’t know exactly what in the brain gets depleted, but when you do a cognitively demanding task, it operates as though there’s a ‘mental fuel’ that gets burned up.” Short breaks of 5 – 10 minutes are remarkably effective at improving retention and restoring energy. Examples of effective breaks include: taking a walk, stretching, tidying up, phoning a friend, taking a quick shower, running an errand, or meditating. Examples of ineffective breaks include using your smart phone, going to sleep, eating a huge meal, playing video games.
- Phones. Smart phones are a source of distraction, your attention switching as you shift from one task to another. According to studies at MIT, what happens when we think we are multitasking is we are actually switching back and forth, you don’t notice you’re switching because, according to Johann Hari in Stolen Focus, our “brain sort of papers over it to give a seamless experience of consciousness.” Hewlett Packard commissioned a study of their employees which found that their IQs dropped by 10 points when they were interrupted with telephone calls and emails. A study at Carnegie Mellon University found that students sitting a test while being interrupted by their cell phones scored 20 to 30 percent less than those who weren’t. Our brains are wired for mono-tasking. Neural plasticity, the idea that the structure and function of the brain can be rewired through stimuli, means that you can train yourself to engage in longer periods of focus. Start by getting rid of those distractions.
- Goals. For each block of study, make sure you have a specific, achievable yet challenging goal. For example: “In the next fifteen minutes, I will read and annotate a persuasive article.” Or: “After that, I will write an introduction and body paragraph for an argument analysis essay.” Setting goals will help to improve your self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation. As noted by educational psychologist Dale Shunk: “…as learners work on tasks, they observe their own performances and evaluate their own goal progress. Self-efficacy and goal setting are affected by self-observation, self-judgment, and self-reaction. When students perceive satisfactory goal progress, they feel capable of improving their skills; goal attainment, coupled with high self-efficacy, leads students to set new challenging goals.”
- Flow. Flow occurs when you are working on something so intently that time seems to pass without noticing. As noted on Headspace: “You may have experienced a flow state at some point — that sense of fluidity between your body and mind, where you are totally absorbed by and deeply focused on something, beyond the point of distraction. Time feels like it has slowed down. Your senses are heightened. You are at one with the task at hand, as action and awareness sync to create an effortless momentum. Some people describe this feeling as being “in the zone.”” There are three things you need to achieve flow: a single goal; that goal is meaningful to you; you are pushing yourself to the edge of your abilities—if something is too easy you won’t achieve flow, if it’s too difficult you will become frustrated.
- Study techniques. Re-reading, highlighting and summarising are low impact activities. If you want to maximise your time, try the following:
- Distributed practice. Smaller blocks of study spread over a longer time will help you learn better and retain information than a single session of cramming right before an exam. Studies have demonstrated that distributed practice is far more effective for learning and retention than cramming.
- Practice testing. Learning material is not about cramming information into your brain, it’s about getting information out of your brain. Practice testing, including tests, quizzes, practices exams, practice essays and maths problems, is a terrific way to practice your recall of information. Practice testing becomes more effective when you actively reflect on your progress and decide on goals for improvement.
- Elaborative interrogation. Reading information without any purpose or goal is an example of passive learning. Before undertaking any reading or study, pose questions that you would like to answer. They might be broad questions that relate to the big concepts or big ideas you are studying. Then, when you are reading, actively interrogate the text to get your answers. Having questions that you want answered is a “great catalyst” for active learning, according to Dr Paul Penn.
- Self explanation. It is far more effective if you seek to explain something to yourself rather than rely on simply reading a book or listening to a teacher. This process allows you to fill in missing information, monitor your understanding and integrate prior knowledge with new information.
Your attitude towards study has a huge bearing on your success.
- Metacognition. Metacognition is the process of thinking about your thinking. It involves being aware of the curriculum, what you know, what you don’t know and how you can develop your knowledge further. Some metacognitive strategies include:
- Know the study design. Use the study design as a roadmap for your study, helping to identify what you are confident with, what you still need to learn and areas of confusion.
- Think aloud. Verbalise your thoughts. Ask yourself questions about what you are learning and why.
- Ask yourself questions.
- Take notes from memory. Remember, that study and revision should focus on retrieving relevant details from your memory.
- Self-testing. Sit tests, practice questions and sample exams.
- Self-assessment. Assess your work, actively reflect on your progress, decide on the next steps you need to take.
- Active vs passive. Always ensure that your revision is active, e.g. testing, self-assessment, practice SACs, sample exams. Passive behaviours include re-reading and highlighting.
- Locus of control. Locus of control is the degree to which people believe that they, as opposed to external forces, have control over the outcome of events in their lives. Someone with an internal locus of control
- Self-talk. Positive self-talk can help improve results. Positive thinking and an optimistic outlook on what you are studying can help manage stress.