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Count down to exams – and strolling and scrolling – a pain in the neck

Revision notes

All the parents I know are stressing about getting their children through the exam season. While the results are obviously important, making sure they’re healthy and happy is the issue that keeps them up at night.

They’re right to worry as the majority of long term mental health conditions begin in early teenage years – Age of onset of mental disorders: a review of recent literature, and over 15% of students heading into GCSE’s say they are anxious (that’s the equivalent of a Baccalareat or high school diploma in the USA). Research suggest that girls tend suffer more from exam-related mental health concerns – Has education-related stress increased among GCSE and A-level students since the introduction of linear assessments?

Perhaps not surprisingly, parents do everything they can to help. Although most feel their child should do their homework themselves, 73% admit to helping their children to get it done – Antecedents and Outcomes of Parental Homework Involvement: How Do Family-School Partnerships Affect Parental Homework Involvement and Student Outcomes?

Although stepping in to do the homework isn’t the answer, there is a clear link between academic achievement and the amount of homework they get done.

But, as with every measure of productivity, it’s the motivation and quality of effort and not the amount of time that counts – Effects of homework creativity on academic achievement and creativity disposition: Evidence from comparisons with homework time and completion based on two independent Chinese samplesAcademic Goals, Student Homework Engagement, and Academic Achievement in Elementary School.

So what can you do to help? As well as spending time and talking about their anxieties, simple changes to your home could help.

1/ Create a dedicated space

Students without a desk are three times more likely to be at the bottom academically than at the top –  Kids with a desk and a quiet place to study do better in school, data shows. This may be linked to socio-economic factors, but is also a key indicator of parental support.

2/ Reduce visual clutter 

It’s harder to focus in a cluttered space. Even moderate levels of clutter increases processing time and visual fatigue, reduced accuracy and even distress for some – Effect of environmental clutter on attention performance in hoarding.

The visual clutter effect extends to screen display: multiple open windows and apps, particularly those with notifications and pop-ups reduces performance and visual attention – Display clutter and its effects on visual attention distribution and financial risk judgmentalthough is effect is mitigated in expert viewers – Searching in clutter: Visual behavior and performance of expert action video game players.

The impact of visual clutter on students with ADHD is likely to be more acute as they process visual information in distinctly different ways – Visual Network Asymmetry and Default Mode Network Function in ADHD: An fMRI Study, which leads to lower local efficiency – Topological organization of the “small-world” visual attention network in children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Paradoxically, those students are more likely to exhibit hoarding behaviours, exacerbating the problem – A pilot exploration of ADHD symptoms in hoarding disorder: Co-occurring disorders or part of the hoarding syndrome?

That doesn’t mean a soul-less white cube. We are all on a spectrum when it comes to our preference for complexity and and taste changes with age.  Young children tend to prefer colourful patterns, while older children prefer complexity – An investigation into visual complexity and aesthetic preference to facilitate the creation of more appropriate learning analytics systems for children.

Overall, we tend to find patterns that reflect the balance of contrasts and scales we see in nature more visually comfortable – A physiological basis for visual discomfort: Application in lighting designMaking the Space for Learning.

Manage screen time 

50-60% of students complain of dry eye syndrome, which extends to stiff neck, general fatigue, headache, and backache – Complex Interplay Between COVID-19 Lockdown and Myopic Progression.

Spending more than 4 hour online at a stretch reduces the eye’s ability to focus, leading to blurry vision and reduced accuracy, especially when shifting between objects or surfaces-  from screen to paper for example – Binocular Accommodation and Vergence Dysfunction in Children Attending Online Classes During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Digital Eye Strain in Kids (DESK) Study-2.

One study offered students some simple tips to manage their screen time and keep their eyes relaxed while working online, effectively reducing anxiety and eye strain – A Peer-to-Peer Live-Streaming Intervention for Children During COVID-19 Homeschooling to Promote Physical Activity and Reduce Anxiety and Eye Strain: Cluster Randomized Controlled Trial.


Strolling and scrolling? 

Most of us – including our kids, find it hard to put their phone down, even on the move. 

But you’re more likely to suffer from itchy dry eyes and headaches, get neck and back ache. One recent study among middle and high school students found two thirds of respondents reported dryness, grittiness, and scratchiness at least some of the time, over half admitted to experiencing burning or watering. Nine out of ten reported experiencing tired eyes at least some of the time – Increase in Dry Eye Symptoms Among Middle and High School Students After Initiation of Online Learning Due to COVID-19 Pandemic.

That’s because you tend to look down – angle of around 45 degrees, instead of the optimal angle of around 15 degrees – just below eye level.

You tend to bring your smartphone closer to your eyes the longer you read – Viewing distance and eyestrain symptoms with prolonged viewing of smartphones.

Your pattern of blinking changes too, with more incomplete blinks over time, making the dry eye feeling worse – Smartphone Use and Effects on Tear Film, Blinking and Binocular Vision.

Plus it will take you longer to get to your destination, you’ll perform the task more slowly and you’re 84% more likely to have an accident while you’re walking along a street – Risks of Accidents Caused by the Use of Smartphone by Pedestrians Are Task- and Environment-Dependent.

If you’re going to use your smartphone on the move, stop somewhere safe, hold the screen up to eye level and use one hand instead of two – User Walking Speed and Standing Posture Influence Head/Neck Flexion and Viewing Behavior While Using a Smartphone.

Using a phone is slightly better standing up compared to sitting down because you’re likely to be more upright – Neck and shoulder strains under various head flexing positions while standing and sitting with and without back support for male and female smartphone users.

But if you’ve got a report to read, wait until you’ve got access to a full-size screen: after just 20 minutes reading on an iPad compared to a computer, this study found significantly higher pain score (eyestrain, headache, and tired eyes) and blurred vision – A Comparison between Effect of Viewing Text on Computer Screen and iPad® on Visual Symptoms and Functions.


Sleep turbo-charges exam results 

Revision programme needs to include sleep.

Quality and quantity of sleep accounts for up to 25% of variance in academic outcomes – Sleep quality, duration, and consistency are associated with better academic performance in college students.

Teens are up to 50 times more sensitive to light after dark, so it’s even more important for them to switch off in good time before bed.

Encourage them to revise by creating visual representations of the learning from the day.

That will not only get them off the screen and off to sleep but increase comprehension and memory of complex information – Creating visual explanations improves learning.



If you think sitting exams is stressful, imagine the life of an air traffic controller!

Next time you’re sitting on the tarmac waiting to take off, you might have the romantic idea that an air traffic controller is sitting in a tower looking out over the runway.

But chances are that they’re in a sealed room somewhere, perhaps in a completely different city looking at your flight on a video-panorama display screen known as an ‘out of the window’ display.

You might think that ‘bigger is better’ – but it turns out that the controllers are faster and more accurate with a smaller, 43-inch monitor compared to the larger  55-inch model.  Stimuli are bigger and therefore easier to spot on the larger screen but the increased head and eye movements and visual distortions cancel out that effect – The impact of out-the-window size on air traffic controllers’ visual behaviours and response time on digital tower operations.

You should also hope that, not only do they have access to the latest screen technology, but have great lighting too.

This fascinating case study shows how lighting designs that deliver high melanopic lux without glare and light levels and distribution changing across the course of the day and into the evening can not only improve visual comfort and alertness but subjective well-being and perceived naturalness too.

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