Eat to the beat for top marks

16th May 2003 at 01:00
A diet of Bach and bananas can help students with exams. Janet Murray reports

Few would argue with the idea that exam success depends on preparation.

Students are advised to draw up study time-tables, colour-code revision notes, take regular breaks and get plenty of sleep. It certainly works for some. But as Marie McGee has found out, reaching out to all learners requires more innovation.

Ms McGee is assistant head at Turves Green girls' school and technology college in Birmingham, where students prepare for exams on an unusual diet of bananas, water and Bach. "Getting ready for exams is not just about revision," she says. "If you look after the body, the mind will perform better. A significant number of our students come to school without eating breakfast, and many don't drink enough water."

For the second year running, all students will be provided with a banana and a bottle of water at the start of each exam. "It's nutritional common sense," explains Ms McGee. "The bananas give them sustained energy and we hope the water will prevent dehydration. If they're hungry or thirsty, students may not perform to the best of their ability."

With pupils' health and wellbeing top of the agenda, staff have sought sponsorship from local companies; one has agreed to provide bananas for all national examinations for the next two years.

Ensuring candidates are relaxed is also a priority. Students file into the examination room to the melodies of Bach's cello suites, which Ms McGee believes creates a calm, purposeful atmosphere. "Bach's music is very mathematical. Its structures give a strong sense of symmetry, and research shows that Bach's music has a significant effect on brainwaves - relaxing the brain and aiding concentration."

In the months leading up to the exams, students attend revision sessions where they are taught study and relaxation skills. The sessions start in February, when students are introduced to Bach as a way of relaxing the mind. They are supplied with bananas and water, as they will be in their exams, and highlighter pens, and are taught cross-curricular skills such as skim-reading, highlighting key information and mind-mapping.

The exam programme is just one aspect of the school's drive towards diversity in teaching and learning. In Year 7, students are tested to find out their preferred learning style so staff can adapt it to help them study.

Throughout the school year, teachers use brain gym, a system of physical exercises that stimulate and activate specific parts of the brain, and which can improve concentration. "We often stop during a lesson when students get sluggish," explains Ms McGee. "Brain gym is a quick and effective way of changing the physical and mental state. One exercise we use is getting students to write their name with their right hand while writing backwards with their left. It really gets the brain working."

According to Ms McGee, innovative approaches to teaching and learning have had a huge impact on exam performance. Last year, 55 per cent of students achieved five or more A*-Cs, an improvement of around 5 per cent on the previous year. This year, she hopes the figure will rise to 60 per cent .

At Lancaster girls' grammar school, music is also a key feature of exam preparation, but instead of Bach, it's Boyzone. Students are encouraged to write revision songs to the tunes of popular music. "Teachers are always asking how they can make difficult topics more accessible," says biology teacher Richard Fusco. "A few years ago, it occurred to me that from an early age we use songs and rhymes to help us remember things - colours, days of the week, months in the year - so we should make more use of this.

We started using the technique in the science department; now it's used throughout the school.

"Music plays a big part in young people's lives," he explains. "It provides a hook to get learners into a topic. It works particularly well with weaker students; putting the information into a different form helps them think about the processes involved."

It sounds fun, but does it improve exam performance? "The success is difficult to measure," admits Mr Fusco. "But some students tell me that the tunes go round their heads during an exam, helping them to remember. They appreciate that you are giving them interesting ways to retain and recall information."

Marie McGee uses Whistle While You Work (Stay Focused), pound;14.99 (inc VAT) - a CD compilation of classical tracks specifically selected for active learners - available from the Accelerated Learning Centre, tel: 01267 211880, or visit find out about brain gym, visit For information on learning styles, visit To find out about music in improving learning, go to, or

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