Mind over Midterms: Student Productivity Hacks

Students have always sought an edge that will allow them to overcome the inevitable consequences of procrastination and distraction. Unfortunately, cramming, coffee mega-dosing, and all the other tricks have counterproductive effects, ultimately decreasing productivity and efficiency and leading to worse outcomes when grades are posted. As midterms approach, here are some productivity hacks that will help you to ace your upcoming exams.

Coffee Nap

Napping has been gaining in favor over the past few decades, as researchers have discovered the benefits of an afternoon siesta. Unfortunately for most 9-5 workers, a 20 minute snooze in the middle of the workday is probably out of the question. But for students, with their variable schedules, a naps can be the perfect way to get a boost.

In order to get the most out of your nap, it’s important to remember a few things. First, be strict with the time; the snooze button is your enemy. 20-30 minutes is the ideal amount of time to achieve the great benefits, because it give you an energy boost without dropping your body into deep REM sleep.

One of the stranger recent discoveries has been the benefit of ingesting caffeine immediately before taking a 20-30 minute nap. Because your body takes around a half an hour to process caffeine, if you drink a coffee quickly and then go immediately to sleep, you’ll wake up refreshed right as the effects of the coffee start to kick in.

Timed Breaks

Research has shown that humans are only capable of maintaining deep focus for short spans of approximately 15 minutes. The traditional cramming method of sitting at a desk and studying for hours at end, therefore, is not only inefficient, but actually challenges basic human nature.

"Il pomodoro" by Erato at Italian Wikinews 

"Il pomodoro" by Erato at Italian Wikinews 

Instead of banging your head again the desk trying to force yourself to focus, plan timed breaks into your study schedule. You can do this either by taking an old school approach and setting an egg timer, or by using an app to remind you to take regular breaks. It may not be realistic to take a break every 15 minutes, but social scientists have found that it is crucial to find a formula of work to breaks that fits best to your personal style. One version of this is the Pomodoro Technique, but many others exist, and its best to find a time distribution that fits your personal attention span.

Importantly, though, don’t allow yourself to wander during your breaks. Breaks should be short, between 5-20 minutes, and only serve to give your brain a chance to refocus. Also, don’t try to do any work during your breaks. Take a short walk. Have a chat with your roommate. Stare off into space for a few minutes. And as soon as the time is up, get back to work.

Chunking

You might have had the experience of spending an evening staring at a textbook, trying in vain to retain the information on the pages. The problem is that most of us only have space in our short-term memories, meaning that new material in a cram session often overwrites what you’ve already studied.

One way to avoid this problem is through chunking, a technique of grouping similar items together and then using a mnemonic to remember them. One example would be to remember your grocery list of milk, ice cream, nuts, oatmeal and wheat bread by creating the mnemonic MINOW.

This technique has been used by memory champions and regular people alike to remember massive chains of random numbers. The trick to find an association with the information so that you don’t have to remember each individual data point. The effect can almost seem magical, but because it relies on the fundamental nature of the human brain, chunking is an incredibly effective way to prepare for exams that test students’ retention rather than comprehension.


Midterms are usually an unpleasant time on most college campuses, but they don’t have to be. Try out these techniques, and hopefully this year’s exams will be at least a little less painful.