As the first term of this new academic year draws to a close, we should reflect and plan ahead. How can you up your game?

There is a growing body of research that takes an unconventional look at what habits improve student performance. It asks the question, under what circumstances does learning best happen? The conventional wisdom assumes that desks, proper lighting, well-staffed and well-stocked schools and a variety of study methods are the principal drivers for academic success. There is however increasing acknowledgement that things such as intentionality, quality of sleep rather than quantity, and access to nutritious food has just as much to do with student success. I believe in taking a holistic approach to learning, elements that relate to physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. What I have repeatedly seen is that when a student is equipped and supported to deal with the stressors in their life, their academic performance improves.

Let us start by looking at six components of a holistic approach to learning; nutrition, sleep, mindfulness, posture, fitness and, learning strategy. Nutrition, is not hard to figure out. The human body needs to be fed properly to perform well. Proper nutrition has been shown to improve the body’s ability to handle stress and improve certain kinds of memory and cognition. Nutrition is so important that researchers studying Alzheimer’s, dementia, ADHD and treatment for traumatic brain injury have included it as a key component in their research.

Second, quality sleep. No this is not just a gimmick to sell mattresses. It is vital for higher level neural functions. Lack of sleep can interfere with our executive functions. Remember, sleepy brains do not learn very well. Similarly, posture is another element that sounds like it is unrelated to learning or mental function. The truth is that your posture can affect your organ function and your circulation. It can also affect your mood. Hours spent slumped in class or over books take their toll on your mind.

Mindfulness. We see meditation and mindfulness techniques being employed to help many in society - benefits include increased deep breathing and lowered heart rate. As a student, mindfulness training has been shown to increase choice reaction time, spatial working memory, accuracy while performing tasks and even motivation. Mindfulness and fitness and cousins. A first point to consider is that regular exercise has a degree of stress resistance. It has repeatedly been shown that moderate cardiovascular exercise diminishes the prevalence of mood disorders. Simply put, exercise can be a key component when fighting depression, anxiety, and in improving mental dexterity.

The health and well-being components are ‘all well and good’ but they all must come together with identifying proper learning strategies. This begins with having the proper motivation and understanding of how you learn best. Studies have shown that students that have a weak concept of why they are studying tend to underperform when compared to those who are strongly motivated. Choosing the right study method for each subject is also important. Over the course of a single academic year, successful students will employ multiple study techniques to cover a variety of subjects and, the period during the academic year.

In summary, students should endeavour to take a more holistic approach to raising their academic performance. But remember, each and every student is different therefore the mix of these components will also be different.

- Dr Ambroz Neil is managing consultant at Alexander Partners.