How Circus Skills Will Help You Pass Your GCSEs (SATs and A-Levels)

Animals Exam

I might miss some classes this term.

Every year in the summer term our students (and their parents) tell me that they may have to miss several classes this term. It’s not because it’s summer and they’re going on an exciting holiday with their family. It’s because it’s exam season. Students (and/or their parents) are worried about failing their exams and think that they need to spend as much time as possible studying and revising – especially the dreaded Night Before An Exam.

It’s great that our students are committed to doing well in their exams. (When I was that age I didn’t care about the exam grades I achieved. What was important to me was studying circus skills!) However I’ve noticed that many students don’t study effectively and end up sacrificing their circus classes unnecessarily and possibly even to their detriment.

Most students feel like they should (or need to) revise – or worse, do their actual studying – the Night Before An Exam. They think that last minute cramming is going to help them perform better in the exam and achieve better results.

But does last minute studying – or cramming – actually work? Or could attending your circus class actually help you pass your exam?

Students cram before an exam for two main reasons:

  1. Either they haven’t studied and prepared enough, or
  2. They’ve studied and prepared enough but are worried or anxious about the exam.

Obviously, it would be better to have studied enough. Everyone knows that writing a good study plan and then sticking with it is the sensible thing to do but few of us actually do it. We then try to cram our learning, or at best our revision, into a few hours the night before the exam.

But cramming doesn’t work. In fact, says Tom Stafford, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Sheffield, it gives us a false sense of familiarity with the material that has nothing to do with our ability to recall the information when we actually need it.

Studies of memory suggest that we have a worrying tendency to rely on our familiarity with study items to guide our judgements of whether we know them. The problem is that familiarity is bad at predicting whether we can recall something.

Stafford, in his article “The Worst Way to Learn” for BBC Future, goes on to say how different parts of the brain are used for different kinds of memory. Recognition (the ability to remember something immediately after a revising session) is separate from, and stored in a different part of the brain to, recall, which will “recreate a memory from the clues you give it.”

Just because your visual cortex is fluently processing your notes after five consecutive hours of you looking at them, doesn’t mean the rest of your brain is going to be able to reconstruct the memory of them when you really need it to.

We actually trick ourselves into thinking we know something, because we have a feeling of familiarity. But that feeling of familiarity doesn’t translate into actual knowledge or into recall ability, even if we really want or try to remember it.

Research into the psychology of memory shows that intention to remember is a very minor factor in whether you remember something or not. Far more important than whether you want to remember something is how you think about the material when you encounter it.

Wanting to remember something, or trying really hard to remember it, doesn’t make a difference to your ability to remember it.

Your ability to remember and recall information is largely a matter of how that information is organised. Thinking deeply about and considering what your are learning, putting the information into context, understanding its relationship to you and to other things you are learning, and reorganising and interpreting the information in your own way, will help to anchor the material in your own experience and in your memory.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t effective techniques for remembering and recalling information quickly. The mind palace (or method of loci) is one such technique popularised in the TV show Sherlock.

This technique anchors the material you’re learning, creates relevance and organises the information in an interesting and memorable way that makes sense to you, just as Tom Stafford suggests. But I doubt many of my students are using this or any other effective technique.

The Brain and the Body

The brain is obviously the critical organ for learning and recalling information. The brain stores our memories, and as our brain degenerates, so does our memory.

However, we often disassociate the brain from the body. For decades mental health has been separated from physical health. Mental health issues are dealt with by psychologists and psychiatrists, while physical health issues are dealt with by medical doctors and physicians. But more and more, research is showing clear links between the health of the body and the health of the mind. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Why should we expect our brain to be healthy if our body isn’t? We can’t separate the brain from the body; the brain is part of the body.

Taking care of your brain and body throughout exam season (and beyond) should be as important to you as passing your exams and achieving your desired grades.

Circus is Good for The Body and the Brain

There are many aspects of learning and practicing circus skills that are good for your body and your brain that could each provide small advantages when it comes learning academic subjects and studying for your exams.

We all know that exercise is good for the body but did you know that it is also is good for the brain? Physical activity and exercise gets your heart pumping and your blood flowing, sending oxygen and nutrition to the brain and your muscles. Physical activity has been shown to improve memory, even in older people with symptoms of memory dysfunction.

New activities (circus is full of them) are also good for the brain. Several studies have shown that people who learn to juggle actually have significant increases in the structure of the brain. Learning a new skill like juggling actually promotes brain growth and strengthens neural connections.

It’s also important to takes breaks from studying. Taking a break is actually an important part of learning. Breaks allows the brain to assimilate the information being studied, actually allowing the learning to take place and be assimilated into long-term memory. Without taking breaks, we actually interfere with the stabilisation of new memories.

Studies have shown that students pay more attention to academic studies when they have unstructured breaks in which to play.

Taking a break from studying and attending your circus class also let’s you spend time with friends. Social Activities were shown to boost working memory, self-monitoring and the ability to suppress internal and external distractions in this study from the University of Michigan.

It would be remiss of me not to mention diet. Although diet isn’t specifically a part of circus, a healthy diet is good for the body and the brain, and any serious athlete (amateur or pro) will pay attention to what they eat.

Diet is a big and controversial topic; everyone’s got an opinion about what constitutes a healthy diet and I’ll probably publish a blog with my own opinion on what a healthy diet is some day. For now, I expect we can all agree that sugar and heavily processed foods are bad for you – including your brain. If you want to study well, eat whole, unprocessed foods without much sugar. That especially includes not fueling your study on energy drinks that give a short term sugar (and caffeine) boost followed by a sugar-crash. If you give your body and your brain good fuel, it’s going to perform well. And we want our students to be healthy, strong performers.

Physical activity, learning new skills and taking breaks to play and be sociable are all good for you. They keep your body healthy and can enhance your memory, your ability to assimilate information and eliminate distractions. They’re also great fun.

Can your circus classes help you pass your exams?

On its own, attending your circus class won’t help you pass your exams. First and foremost, you should be making a study plan and sticking to it. By incorporating your circus class into your plan you can help keep your body and your brain healthy, and your mind alert, engaged and open to learning. It’ll also provide the necessary break that your brain needs to assimilate and store the new information you’ve been learning and studying.

Your circus classes can also be an opportunity to reorganise and interpret the information in your own way. Studying biology? Let’s talk about muscles. Physics? Let’s look at gravity’s effect on juggling balls. English? Let’s discuss Shakespeare! We enjoy these kinds of discussions in class and we want you to be successful.

Whether you’re committed to passing your exams, or committed to learning and practicing your circus skills (like me), there will always be things that try to get in the way of what you want. Having exams is an opportunity to practice being mature about your study and your circus training.

Let your exams be your reason to be mature.

Don’t let your exams be a reason to miss your circus class.


Further References

  1. Exercise Training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory
  2. Exercise Improves Memory Acquisition and Retrieval in the Y-Maze Task: Relationship with Hippocampal Neurogenesis 
  3. Relation of Academic Performance to Physical Activity and Fitness in Children
  4. The importance of physical activity and aerobic fitness for cognitive control and memory in children.
  5. Brain Training: The joy of puzzles
  6. The cognitive benefits of play: Effects on the learning brain
  7. Training induces changes in white-matter architecture