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Courtesy Valeria Boltneva

Study outside for better focus this exam season

By Christie Melhorn, April 6 2017 —

Spring hasn’t quite sprung — it’s not that time of year where students plant themselves on the grass by campus’ main paths yet. However, it’s definitely warm enough to spend at least half an hour outdoors cracking open your books or taking a quality study break. As we move closer to exams, the weather will only improve, further enticing you outside. Spending time in your natural surroundings can not only boost your mood and negate exam-stress, but also holistically nurture your sense of well-being.

One fall, just as a wintery briskness was becoming detectable, I spent about an hour studying at the base of a tree in Confederation Park. I vividly remember the setting and even some of the material I was reading — or rather, that I was cramming since I had barely touched my religious studies textbook leading up to the exam. Normally, the pressure would have stressed me out and I would be more focused on simply pounding through as much as I could. We’ve all been there — skimming through the paragraphs, hovering around the bolded words and hastily entering their definitions into our brains. It’s a rather unpleasant experience that takes away from the potential joy and fulfilment that can come with indulging in a well-written textbook.

Sitting on an awkward tangle of roots and leaning against tough bark might sound like the worst study environment. However, after a little adjustment and strategicly placing my backpack, I actually found it incredibly peaceful and centering.

My experience is reminiscent of the findings in a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The goal of the study was to analyze the neurological benefits of spending time in nature. The 38 healthy, urban-dwelling adults who participated were split into two groups. Both groups filled out a mood-assessment questionnaire and received brain scans to gauge mood and morbidity levels. Half the group then spent 90 minutes walking along a busy highway while the other walked along a tree-lined path in an inner-city park. The group who walked through the park displayed visible improvements in their mental health. Contrastingly, those who walked along the highway remained at the same level of morbidity.

Going into my outdoor study session, I may not have been particularly moody, but the serenity of the park facilitated a fluid and smooth reading process. I felt more present in myself and therefore more engaged with the material.

Sometimes in a cram session, I constantly check the time to assess my progress and how much longer my suffering will drag out. But when I was studying outside, the shifting colours of the sky and falling light subliminally indicated the time. A purple sky embellished with pinks and oranges is much more soothing and a lot less daunting than the rigid numbers on your phone’s clock.

Rather than forcing myself to sit until my back felt brittle, the elongating shadows and dipping temperatures signalled that it was time for me to move inside, offering an opportune study break. Even though I still had a long night ahead of me, the sense of synchronicity between my body and nature’s pattern was easing and strangely reassuring.

Of course, studying outside can definitely get frustrating. I could appreciate the curiosity of the ants scrambling around my textbook and tickling my legs but flicking them off my notebook was tedious and bothersome. A random rush of wind that sent my notes sprawling also offered an unwanted interruption, but at least it encouraged me to take a quick, active study break. And to be honest, I found these more tolerable than the typical library orchestra of  sighing, coughing, bad TV show dialogue and snack wrapper crinkling of the TFDL.

While outdoor distractions can be annoying, they are entirely avoidable if anticipated and they certainly don’t outweigh the benefits of studying outside. A University of Michigan study indicated that students who took a quick walk around an arboretum scored 20 per cent higher on a memory test than students who walked down a city street. Not only did this indicate improved short-term memory, it highlighted the concentration-boosting effects of being outdoors.

Nature’s ability to empower our minds goes beyond sharpening basic studying skills like memorization. A study published by the Public Library of Science illuminates that spending more time outdoors and less time plugged into a piece of technology intensively cultivates our critical and creative thinking skills. After spending four days in nature with limited access to technology, the amateur hikers participating scored 50 per cent higher on a creative-problem solving based test.

The grind of school and work coupled with our dependency on over-stimulating technology has made us accustomed to incessant mental multi-tasking. Slowing down and indulging in one task allows intimate conversations with our inner selves to flourish. It’s incredible how quickly a surfacing subconscious thought that carries a lot of meaning can be cut off by the buzz of a text or beep from a car horn.

I am confident that the simple hour I spent cramming in Confederation Park secured the A+ I got on my test. Beyond getting a strong grade, I genuinely enjoyed the content I was reading and felt I learned a lot. All around, it was a wholesome and nourishing experience. So this exam season — as flower-power-hippie as it might sound — make your long study days a little less painful and potentially enjoyable by shifting things outdoors, even if that just means just taking 30-minute walk to appreciate the trees and sky around you.

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