Studying and public exams can be an incredibly stressful time in a student’s life, managing the revision at the same time a coping with a chronic illness such as FND can present even more issues. As a secondary school teacher with particular interest in pastoral care, I have seen a surprisingly large number of students learn to balance their studies with chronic illnesses and together we have put together a variety of strategies to help them cope at school and university.
On day one of teacher training they tell us ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’, a pithy expression but one which holds a certain amount of truth. Whilst we cannot always predict when we’ll have flare ups or good and bad days, we can see that they will definitely happen. So, our first tips and strategies are about how we can best prepare our work areas and plan for these days.
GIVE YOURSELF TIME
This seems incredibly obvious but don’t leave things until the last minute. when the fatigue, pain or other symptoms flare up, they will stop you working at 100% so you need to factor in a ‘buffer’ for your deadlines. Speak with teachers/lecturers about the length of the deadline if you are unsure of how you’ll fare. It is far better to speak to the teacher at the beginning of the task rather than wait until the day before. The more open and honest you are with your teachers and lecturers, the more they will be able to help and support you. If you can manage the task within the original deadline, break it down into individual tasks and this brings us to the next point
LOOK AT THE SMALLER PICTURE
In lessons, you will notice that your task is changed every 15/20 minutes to help keep you fresh and you can replicate this at home. Don’t sit for hours stewing over the same task, it won’t get easier and you’ll exhaust yourself. Rather than focusing on one enormous task like ‘write my English Literature essay’, look at the smaller parts- today between 1 and 3 I will read the chapters relevant to the essay, tomorrow between 5 and 6 I will write the plan for the essay and draft the introduction… etc... If you approach the task in smaller sections, it will seem less overwhelming and more manageable. Ask your teacher or lecturer for advice and help with any sections of which you are unsure.
GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK
An educational study has shown that our brains find it hard to focus on anything for more than 45 minutes, if you factor in brain fog this number rapidly falls. You need to work out your ‘focus time’ (mine is about 40 mins on a good day) and build your schedule around that. Give yourself time to get up from your work station, walk around or stretch your arms and legs, go to the loo and have a large glass of water (don’t do anything too tiring, you need your energy for studying). If you factor in these breaks I promise that you will see a difference in productivity.
CREATE A ROUTINE
When you create a routine, you’re helping to build good study habits which help your mind and body know that they need to focus on the work ahead. You can do this through listening to the same song before you start, making yourself a cup of tea or putting on your headphones. It doesn’t need to be a complicated routine, I had one student who always chewed different flavoured gum for each of his subjects so that the flavour worked as a trigger when revising. Try to keep the same patterns of behaviour when studying and you’ll soon find that your body responds to these cues.
DON’T WORK IN BED
For the same reasons that you want to create a routine, you want to avoid working in or on your bed as much as possible. Your bed should be a space to switch off, relax and recharge and if you are using it for study as well, it can send confusing messages to our already confused brains who won’t know whether you should be winding down to sleep or gearing up for a study session. I know that for some, studying in bed will be unavoidable but if this is the case, try to make allowances by sitting in a different position (top to tail or sideways).
GET RID OF ANY DISTRACTIONS
Staying focused on one thing can be tricky anyway before you factor interruptions from texts, social media and physical distractions. When you’re going to sit down and get on with work, remove the temptation to procrastinate by putting your phone on airplane mode, logging out of social media and turning off the television. Remember that your mind might not function as it did before, I used to be able to work for a few hours marking a set of books in front of the television, with my phone beside me, but now I have to be in a silent room with my phone tucked away and the door shut to limit sounds and distractions. If you are finding it harder and harder to study even though you haven’t changed anything, you might need to think about revamping your routine.
Our bodies weren’t made to sit hunched over a computer desk for hours tapping away on the keyboard and squinting at the screen. You need to make a conscious effort to make your work place as comfortable as possible. Ensure your desk chair properly supports you, put your screen up on a few books so that you are not straining your neck and place your keyboard at the right distance to you so that you’re not always hunching your shoulders. I sit on a ‘wobble cushion’ which helps engage my core muscles and encourages me to sit up straight.
Having created a comfortable, workable space and thought about your time limits and schedule, you now need to get down to studying. When at school, your teacher will more often than not, set the tone for the studies in that particular class but how do you recreate this at home? The first thing you need to address is how do you actually learn best? Words like kinaesthetic and auditory get thrown around a lot in education but what do they actually mean and how can we make them work for us if our tolerances and interactions can change on a daily basis?
GETTING STUCK IN
DISCOVER YOUR LEARNING STYLE
Everyone has their own preferences for taking in information. Take this test to help identify yours. We could break these down into many smaller groups but for the purposes of clarity, we’ll focus on the three biggies- VISUAL (looking at things), AUDITORY (listening to things) and KINAESTHETIC (physically engaging with things).
VISUAL: You prefer using pictures and images to help you retain information.
AUDITORY: You learn best by listening to the information.
KINAESTHETIC: You like to use your body, hands and actions to retain the information.
OK, so you’ve identified your preferred learning style, but what do you now do with this? Below are some examples of how these styles can but put into action when studying.
Create flashcards to help you revise- have a picture on one side to use as a prompt
Try to form a mental picture of things that you hear or things that are read to you.
Write down key words, ideas, or instructions.
Draw pictures to help explain new concepts and then explain the pictures.
Colour code information.
Create flashcards to help you revise- read them out loud.
Read stories, assignments, or directions out loud.
Record yourself repeating the information and play this back when doing other tasks (not studying)
Try singing new facts/statistics to the tune of a nursery rhyme.
If allowed, use a recording device to record lessons and lectures for future reference.
Participate in activities that involve touching, building, moving, or drawing.
Chew gum, walk around, or rock in a chair while reading or studying.
Use flashcards and arrange them in groups to show relationships between ideas.
Trace words with your finger to learn spelling.
At home, tap a pencil, shake your foot, or hold on to something while learning.
WRITE YOUR INFORMATION BY HAND
If you are physically able, try taking notes by hand rather than typing. Studies have shown that our brain is more engaged when forming the letters and words by hand rather than tapping away at a keyboard. Writing everything out will also encourage you to select the most pertinent points rather than transcribing whole lectures. If you can’t write for long periods of time, try to create simple mind maps or spider diagrams or jotting down the key points, definitions, dates and formulae.
ALTERNATE BETWEEN DIFFERENT TYPES OF TASKS
Give your brain a chance to engage with the material and don’t overload it. For example, after an hour of memorising data for an upcoming test you could switch to doing some research or a written task instead of cramming Spanish expressions next.
GET PLENTY OF SLEEP
Another blatantly obvious one but super important nonetheless. Besides waking up feeling rested and improving your focus, a good night’s sleep play a hugely important role in retaining and understanding new information. Throughout the night your brain goes through many stages of sleep. The first few hours are the deepest and this is when your brain has a chance to consolidate all the information from today. REM sleep, when your dreams are at their peak, has been shown to be phenomenally good for deciphering hidden patters, comprehending new information and finding the solution to a hard problem. The final few hours of sleep have been shown to consolidate motor memory and is the type of sleep which is most important to aspiring musicians and athletes. You want to remember those dates from your last History lesson for a test tomorrow? Don’t keep plugging away into the early hours of the morning- put your phone down, step away from Instagram and go to bed.
ASK FOR HELP
This is not admitting weakness, not showing that you aren’t coping, not bothering other people and not giving up. You need all the support you can get so the most important thing to remember is to be open and honest with yourself, your family, friends and above all – your teachers. That French teacher with the sweat patches and ear hair? You probably don’t want to disturb him but give him the chance to surprise you with the support he has to offer. Your teachers all went into this job for a reason and it’s unlikely to be the salary or the social life! If you ask for help, the worst thing that can be said is no and even then, you’re no worse off than you were when you started, so what have you got to lose?
Even with all the support in the world, you will have days when you want nothing more than to give up and throw in the towel, but never lose sight of how far you’ve come, how much you have achieved and the bigger picture at the end of the road. Take it one step at a time, holding hands and you’ll get there in the end.