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Returned tests, motivation and sleep during exams

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Analyzing your returned testsEight reasons to celebrate mistakesMotivationSleep and the functioning studentImproving Sleep Patterns

Analyzing your returned tests

For each exam question missed, analyze why you missed the question and record the number of the question beside the reason. Look for PATTERNS of errors so that you can prepare more efficiently for the next test.

Course: ____________________ Test: ______________________ Date of test: ____________

Errors related to test questions

  1. Failed to understand the questions: ___________________________________
  2. Read question incorrectly: ___________________________________
  3. Read question incompletely: ___________________________________
  4. Did not understand vocabulary: ___________________________________
  5. Others: ___________________________________

Errors related to answers

  1. Incompletely answered the question: ___________________________________
  2. Vaguely answered the question: ___________________________________
  3. Provided incorrect information: ___________________________________
  4. Others: ___________________________________

Errors related to subject

  1. Did not understand material: ___________________________________
  2. Did not study sufficiently: ___________________________________
  3. Lacked basic background knowledge: ___________________________________
  4. Others: ___________________________________

Errors related to test-taking procedures

  1. Did not manage time well in test: ___________________________________
  2. Blocked self due to anxiety: ___________________________________
  3. Did not follow directions: ___________________________________
  4. Others: ___________________________________


Brown, S. A.& Miller, D.E. (1996). The active learner: Successful study strategies. 2nd edition. Los Angeles, CA: Roxbury Publishing Co.

Eight reasons to celebrate mistakes

In his book Becoming a Master Student, David Ellis outlines eight reasons for celebrating mistakes.

  1. Celebration allows us to notice the mistake.
  2. Mistakes are valuable feedback.
  3. Mistakes demonstrate that we’re taking risks.
  4. Celebrating mistakes reminds us that it’s OK to make them.
  5. Celebrating mistakes includes everyone.
  6. Mistakes occur only when we aim at a clear goal.
  7. Mistakes happen only when we’re committed to making things work.
  8. Celebrating mistakes cuts the problem down to size.

So – celebrate!

Ellis, D. (2000). Becoming a Master Student. Canadian 3rd Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. pp 186-87.

Intrinsic and extrinsic rewards

Motivate: to cause a person to act in a particular way. Concerned with movement.

Many of us can feel a lack of persistence, self-discipline, or courage in facing a task. Sometimes we feel the pay-off will be worth the effort… and sometimes we aren’t sure! But we can help ourselves act, which is what motivation is all about!

What makes us want to do something?

We usually act because of a reward that we’ll receive. Rewards are either intrinsic or extrinsic.

Intrinsic rewards are thoughts or feelings within ourselves: we may feel proud, satisfied, delighted, relieved, exhilarated, confident, encouraged, amazed, stimulated, secure, intelligent, ambitious, intrigued, pleasantly surprised. Intrinsic rewards are very powerful motivators as they are under our own control, and they lead to increased self-esteem. ―I said I’d do it …and I did!

Extrinsic rewards are responses from the world around us: we may be paid, win the prize, achieve an award, graduate, take a holiday, be voted Most Valuable Player, have our photo in the newspaper, etc. Extrinsic rewards are also powerful motivators, as they make us feel valued and recognized by others. However, they are much less under our control (e.g. who is the competition? what factors will I be compared on? how many prizes will be given out?).

Highly motivated people cultivate an intrinsic reward system. The prizes, pay cheques, etc are the bonus!

Strategies to build motivation

What are some strategies to build motivation?

  1. Make a promise and keep your word.
  • Set a specific long-range goal (e.g., read Anatomy text by end of week 13) and break it into smaller steps or goals (read one chapter a week). Be clear in your intentions.
  • Tell someone, and ask them to follow your progress. Be accountable.
  • Keep a log or journal of your goals and achievements. Praise yourself.
  1. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step (Lao Tzu). Begin with a small step, and make a plan for the next step.
  2. Develop a routine. Link a new activity with one that you do routinely, like do your sit-ups (new activity) before drinking your morning coffee (old habit).
  3. Include the words “goal, persistence, self-discipline, effort and intrinsic reward” in your vocabulary. Explicitly use these words in relation to your activities.
  4. Observe when you are becoming uncomfortable thinking or doing particular tasks. Discomfort is a signal: Am I unsure, bored, scared, out of my depth? Ask yourself: What is appealing about this activity? What is fearful? Then, experience the discomfort (just sit with it) and soon it will have less power over you.
  5. Think positive: “This will feel great when it’s done” or “I can do it!” instead of “I can’t stand doing this”!
  6. Act like the person you wish to become. Picture yourself as being successful. What do you look like? What are you doing? Where are you? Bring this image to mind as you start challenging activities.
  7. Believe in yourself! Reflect on times when you were motivated. Is there anything in common between then and now? Can you make a small change so this situation is more like those times?
  8. Adopt a hero. Ask yourself, “What would _____ be doing now?” JUST DO IT √
  9. Hang out with motivated people.
  10. Guard your health so you have strength, energy and enthusiasm.
  11. Get support before the downward spiral: behind in assignments→ feeling “stupid” in class→ not attending class→ not understanding the next readings→ losing touch with classmates→ feeling ashamed → falling further behind→ feeling discouraged→ not wanting to start…
  12. Use time management and organizational tools: term or monthly calendars, weekly schedules, To Do lists, prioritizing activities.
  13. Turn up the pressure. Move a deadline forward two weeks if you like pressure.
  14. Turn down the pressure. Eliminate extra responsibilities, and plan small steps if you don’t like a lot of pressure. Focus on the “must” not the “should” activities.
  15. Ask for help when you start to see a pattern of poor motivation, rather than waiting. A teacher, mentor, parent, friend, or counsellor will try to encourage and support you.
  16. Start small. Try one of the strategies that appeals to you and give yourself time to develop it before adding new strategies. Remember: new habits take 21-30 days to “stick!”

Sleep and the functioning student

How much sleep should I try to get?

According to Stanford sleep researcher Dr. William Dement, children and teens need about 10 hours sleep per night. Most adults need between 7 and 8 hours per night.

What do we mean by “circadian rhythm” or “biological clock”?

Our biological clock regulates our sleeping and waking. The human brain has processes that are active 24 hours a day. One function is to induce and maintain sleep. It is a homeostatic process which means when an individual obtains less sleep than the needed amount, the homeostatic process increases the tendency to fall asleep; conversely, when extra sleep is obtained, the homeostatic process decreases the tendency to fall asleep. This ensures that an individual has approximately the same amount of sleep each day. It keeps a record of accumulated sleep debt. Body temperature, caloric intake, and sleep are all regulated homeostatically.

Another brain process is clock-dependent alerting, which induces and maintains alert wakefulness. This process is active during the day, inactive at night, with lowered activity in the early afternoon. These opposing processes allow us to stay up all day and sleep at night. To sleep through the night we need to accumulate sufficient sleep debt during the day, so having those long naps during the day is a no-no!

What is “sleep debt”?

If you don’t get as much sleep as your body needs, the partial sleep loss is carried over and accumulated as sleep debt, which eventually must be paid back. As your debt grows, your energy, mood, and cognition will be undermined (Dement, 1999).


Effects of sleep loss (or sleep debt)

1. Mood and Energy

Do you sometimes feel like everything is an effort?  Is every task overwhelming?  Are you frequently stressed and exhausted?

Sleep research at the University of Pennsylvania showed that subjects who were allowed to sleep only 4.5hrs/night for one week felt:

  • significantly less happy,
  • more stressed,
  • more physically frail, and
  • more mentally and physically exhausted.

But, when the volunteers were allowed to get more sleep again, their physical and mental states bounced back.

2. Motivation

Have you ever complained to your friends that you just don’t feel motivated to do your work? That you can’t think clearly or even get started on an assignment?

Motivation is one of the first things to go when sleep is short changed. The effort of staying awake often seems monumental, and there is little energy left for anything else. In Dement’s sleep studies, once subjects were allowed to get adequate sleep, their motivation levels rose and people felt more interested in the things around them and challenges didn’t seem so overwhelming.

3. Productivity

Do you fall asleep in class? Do you find yourself nodding over your books and taking excessively long periods of time to complete tasks? Do you have trouble concentrating?

Sleep is the first thing most students sacrifice when they are faced with numerous tasks and deadlines. How often have you pulled an all-nighter to finish an assignment? Maybe once in a while you can do this and still function. However, “during chronic sleep deprivation performance deteriorates dramatically. Sleepy people are likely to make little mistakes they would never make when well rested. The mind is prone to wander and concentration apt to flag” (Dement, 1999). Deep sleep enables us to move information from short term to long term memory. Without it, we lose what we learn.

4. Immune system and health

Do you find you tend to cut back on sleep when deadlines approach and end up getting sick? What happens to health over the long term when you don‘t get enough sleep?

Carol Everson, a physiologist at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, studied the effects of total sleep deprivation on rats who died after 40 days without sleep. She discovered that their lymph nodes were enlarged and they had a massive amount of bacteria living in the blood. From this, she concluded that their immune systems must have broken down as a result of extreme sleep deprivation.


Adapted from Dement, W. (1999). The Promise of Sleep. New York: Random House.

What can I do to improve my sleep habits?
  • Keep a Sleep Diary for one week. Monitor your daily cycles of sleep and wakefulness. Try to identify what time of day you are performing most efficiently.
  • Establish regular sleep patterns: same bedtime and waking time each day.
  • Develop a healthy bedtime routine that includes stopping work at least half an hour before bedtime; making a To Do or ‘Worry’ list for the next day; doing some relaxation and stretching exercises; and practicing abdominal breathing to release tension.

Twelve rules for better sleep

  1. Sleep as much as needed to feel refreshed and healthy the following day, but not more. Curtailing the time in bed seems to solidify sleep; excessively long times in bed seem related to fragmented and shallow sleep.
  2. Getting up at a regular time in the morning strengthens circadian cycling and finally, leads to regular times of sleep onset.
  3. A steady daily amount of exercise probably deepens sleep; occasional exercise does not necessarily improve sleep the following night.
  4. Occasional loud noises (e.g., aircraft flyovers) disturb sleep even in people who are not awakened by noises and cannot remember them in the morning. A fan to provide background (white noise) may help those who must sleep close to noise.
  5. Keep room temperature a little cool. Excessively warm rooms disturb sleep but so can very cold rooms.
  6. Hunger may disturb sleep; a light snack may help sleep. Try low fat, non-spicy snacks.
  7. An occasional sleeping pill may be of some benefit, but their chronic use is ineffective in most insomniacs.
  8. Progressive muscle relaxation and abdominal breathing exercises help divert the mind from list making and anxious thoughts which interfere with falling asleep.
  9. Caffeine in the evening disturbs sleep, even in those who feel it does not. So avoid coffee, tea, chocolate and pop in the evening.
  10. Alcohol helps tense people fall asleep more easily, but the ensuing sleep is then fragmented.
  11. People who feel angry and frustrated because they cannot sleep should not try harder and harder to fall asleep but should turn on the light and do something different.
  12. Reduce the number of cigarettes smoked; the chronic use of tobacco disturbs sleep.


Adapted from Hauri, P. (1982). The Sleep Disorders. 2nd edition. Kalamazoo, Mich: Upjohn.