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November 26, 2012, 11:20AM PT in Exam Preparation Blog  |  0 Comments

Stay Calm or Cram On?

relaxing studyingWhether you've been studying for your ACE certification exam for the past three, six or 12 months, test day will be here you before you know it. For many of you, the question arises in the final weeks before the exam: "Do I relax or cram?"

Let's delve into this to help you understand how to pass your ACE exam, leaving you feeling as good as you do after an exhilarating workout. 

The word "pass" itself offers some clues to successful test taking, according to clever thinking from the Utah State University Academic Resource Center. They suggest the following:

  • Preparation – Develop strategies and techniques to improve your test preparation
  • Assessment – Complete surveys to determine the sources of your anxiety, such as the online Beck Anxiety Inventory
  • Strategies for test taking – Learn effective test-taking strategies
  • Stress management – Practice techniques to help you relax and cope, such as visualization, meditation, muscle relaxation, deep breathing and rational thinking (see below)

How does the brain digest information?

You were born with more than 100 billion brain cells, called neurons. From these neurons, you grow dendrites whenever you listen, talk or write about something. Therefore, learning involves growing dendrites. 

The more you practice anything, the more easily neurotransmitters transfer electrical signals between neurons across a synapse, or space, in your brain. More practice leads to thicker dendrites, and thicker dendrites lead to faster transfer of these signals. With more practice, you not only create thicker dendrites, but also double connections. This means you get faster, stronger and longer lasting connections—in other words, your memory gets better. Get it? Practice leads to better memory. 

The amazing thing about these dendrites is that whatever it is that you are doing to grow them will strengthen those specific skills. Completing Academy Elite lessons, for example, will strengthen your watching and listening skills. Reading the ACE Health Coach or Personal Trainer Manuals and other books will strengthen your reading skills. Solving flash-card problems and answering questions on sample tests will enhance your problem-solving and test-taking skills.

The key is to do something active to get those dendrites to grow. In many ways, increasing your brainpower is similar to muscle and cardiorespiratory development—use it or lose it. Create bite-size chunks, use flash cards, connect with a study group, use your senses to write down material, read it, say it out loud, make associations to information you already know and use mnemonics. Practice, practice, practice.

What about the anxiety that makes you think you need to cram?

Anxiety is a feeling of fear, dread, worry or uneasiness—based on an inaccurate fact-less prediction of a negative outcome—in this case, that you won't pass the ACE exam. While a certain level of anxiety or stress may promote positive behavior, too much will prevent it. Some level of stress or anxiety may help memory retention, but most people don't know where that is and go overboard and believe they need to cram. 

Emotions certainly impact how well you learn and your ability to recall what you've learned. Adrenaline and cortisol arise from stress and hinder your neurotransmitters from delivering messages across the synapses in your brain, impairing your memory. On the other hand, endorphins come from relaxing (including exercise) and provide a calming feeling that helps with memory. If you have too much stress, it becomes impossible to pick up any new information—the brain is in override mode and obstructs memory formation. So the choice is yours: adrenaline or endorphins. 

So, do I relax or cram?

It's important to practice frequently, relax and actively engage in multiple study methods such as practice tests, flash cards, note-taking, talking about what you've learned, solving lots of real-life problems, and creating your own questions and answers.

The night before is not the time to prepare for the exam. Provided you have given yourself a week or so before the exam for review, cramming the night before the exam is not necessary—it won't help, and will only add confusion. Furthermore, it will likely interfere by strengthening your erroneous beliefs that you "haven't studied enough" and "won't pass" and that your anxiety will be soothed by "stuffing more terms and equations in my head." None of these irrational thoughts are accurate. 

How do I relax?

Relaxation, as you know, includes physical activity, so take a walk before the exam, stretch and get some mild exercise. Do breathing and relaxation exercises daily for the week before the exam. Think realistically and avoid harsh, inaccurate judgments of your skills. The correct question to ask is what can go right, not what can go wrong? Several days before the exam, visualize yourself taking the test calmly and with self-assurance.

A good relaxation exercise involves clearing your mind of all thoughts. Take a dozen deep breaths, inhaling "calm" through your nose and exhaling and releasing "tension" through your mouth. Tighten and then release each part of your body, starting from the base of your kinetic chain—your feet—to the top of your shoulders, spending some time tightening and letting go of tension as you make your way up your legs, glutes, abdominals, arms, chest and shoulders. You'll feel calmer after each one of these sessions.

If you sacrifice needed sleep to cram just a few more facts into your head the night before the exam, you'll struggle on exam day. Get plenty of sleep the night before the exam and arrive early enough to breathe deeply and meditate to help promote a relaxed, stress-free test-taking experience.

So, what's the bottom line on the "relax or cram" question? "Stay calm and carry on."

By Michael Mantell
Dr. Michael Mantell

Michael Mantell earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania and his M.S. at Hahnemann Medical College, here he wrote his thesis on obesity. He’s served as the Chief Psychologist of Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego and the Chief Psychologist for the San Diego Police Department. He provides breakthrough strategies to help business leaders, athletes, individuals and families create healthy, fit and happy trajectories in life. He is the Senior Consultant for Behavioral Sciences for ACE, an international behavior science fitness presenter, an Advisor to numerous companies and fitness organizations, on the Sports Medicine team of The Sporting Club of San Diego and is featured in many international media outlets. He is listed in the greatest.com 2013 “The 100 Most Influential People in Health and Fitness.”