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So my question isn't directly related to math, but I think you might be able to help me. I'm a 17 year old, last year at school. My class specializes in math/physics (that's our educational system in Lebanon. Last year classes are divided). I'm really good at math/physics and I can take any given problem thrown at me in those two fields and figure out a solution (with what i know apparently). I honestly dream of becoming a theoretical physicist, knowing that i enjoy maths and physics a lot.

The problem is here: Our educational system here in Lebanon, forces us to take a four-hour mathematics exam (there's an official exam given at the end of the year to all students). As I said, I'm good at maths, but when it comes to that exam, my brain seems to stop functioning after the first hour or hour and a half. And I can't solve simple transformations or simple conics problems. This is getting into me, as my grades are not reflecting my true abilities, and it's depressing. The exam is very long to those who may recommend taking breaks, and it can't be finished if I took breaks, but I'm not able to finish it also because I get tired and my brain shuts down.

Sorry for the long, not so related question, but I hope some of you mathematical minds could have some solution.

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  • $\begingroup$ Does everyone else seem to work nonstop for 4 hours? Does anyone take 10 minute breaks once an hour? $\endgroup$ – Daniel R. Collins Feb 18 '18 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ No one takes breaks no $\endgroup$ – user494951 Feb 18 '18 at 14:53
  • $\begingroup$ At my university, we sometimes have an exam for 8 hours. There is a pauze though. $\endgroup$ – user7171 Mar 10 '18 at 11:58
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Having one's mental abilities fall off after about 90 minutes is consistent with having eaten 20 - 30 grams of sugar before the exam started, but not having eaten any starch at that time.

Can you last an extra hour if you also eat about 40 - 60 grams of starch before the exam? Can you last the full exam length if you bring a snack (with another 20 - 30 grams of sugar and 40 - 60 grams of starch) to eat halfway through the exam? To prevent tooth decay, American dentists recommend protein in addition to (or instead of) the sugar.

Have you talked to a doctor about whether a test for diabetes-like syndrome(s) might be appropriate?

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  1. Take some periodic breaks. Yes, you can't finish it if you take breaks, but you can't finish it if you don't take breaks. Think of it as an optimization problem. Volume is rate times time. If your rate is 50% higher when you use 10% of the time for breaks, you are still better off.

(100%)(90%) > (50%)(100%)

They don't need to be long breaks but can be grabbing some water or hitting the head. Or just staring into space for a little while. Use your judgment when you think you need it, based on fatigue.

  1. Do the exam in a nonlinear manner. (Easiest problems first.) Just the moving around will refresh you. This also allows back of your mind to work on the toughies, also builds confidence, also some actual results/methods of one easy problem may be a subpart of a more complex problem.

  2. Also, move around to different parts of the exam if you get stuck or bored in an area (will refresh you). [For both 2 and 3, it is a judgment call how much to do this, but some amount will help.]

  3. Train yourself for endurance by practice.

  4. Improve your skill level. If you are smart enough to be able to crush the problems, you won't have an issue taking a few minutes to recharge in the exam.


Net, net: do more homework problems. You will find your capacity and speed improve. 4 hours is brutal for anyone but a lot less so for those who have the material mastered and beaten into submission. I suspect you do not and are a little overconfident. (Common student...and human...failing.) Tests and math are like sports. You need to have those skills honed, not just performed occasionally/slowly.


Couple other considerations:

  1. This is a high stakes performance given it is yearly. But for high stakes performances, it is advisable to overtrain. Both because of the importance and because of the need for more confidence. Nothing is perfect, but I have always found in work, school, and sports that overtraining for high stakes performances paid off for me. I might still have a little angst before the game started, but once it got going, I always felt good--the overtraining had made me ready for the "test".

  2. Things MAY (I stress MAY) be a little more harsh, less liberal, in your Levantine school system. But don't think that Westerners don't have some challenges like this as well. US college finals can be several hours long. Not to mention AP tests. Or grad school qualifiers. Also, many professional exams (medical, law, engineer) are long and intense. I've also had 4 to 8 hour exams in the military. So, you might have it slightly tougher than the average 17 year old. But it's not insane. (And for that matter at 17, you are moving into adulthood.) Do your best and figure out how to develop the skill and endurance needed--could even be a benefit if you are "stronger" and then compete in Western schools versus those without same forced training. [And even if this weren't true, you need to master the darned exams anyways, so try to come up with the positive motivation to trick yourself!]

P.s. I looked at the discussion on your locked mathSE thread. Although a little tougher, the comments from your teachers and the commenters are similar to mine. And way less verbose. Really man, you need to do more homework every night. Do it fast, too. Not frantic. But also not slow and pondering. Get used to working faster and make it part of the game.

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  • $\begingroup$ I always do all of my homework and work well in class and at home. But one thing I'm missing is working fast. Thank you for the advice and great answer! I'll try to practice faster from now on, even though i think I'm more productive when i take my time with anything. $\endgroup$ – user494951 Feb 18 '18 at 17:45
  • $\begingroup$ Do more than just the assigned problems. Try to do all that are in the book. (Not meant cruelly. Serious. It will help you. You think you have this stuff down but you don't have it crushed.) $\endgroup$ – guest Feb 18 '18 at 20:31
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While it is true (as @Jasper suggests) that your issue might be partly metabolic/biochemical, also it is simply the case that human beings cannot operate in a very intense mode for very long. In teaching graduate courses in mathematics and giving seminars and so on, I feel myself becoming incoherent after a little more than 60 minutes unless I can take a break mentally and re-orient myself. (E.g., check email, stop thinking about math for 5 minutes.) Also, there is a contrast between what one can maintain as a "sprint" versus a longer "run": pace.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is exactly what i think of! When I'm usually working maths/physics at home, i take frequent breaks so that my brain functions normally, even if I'm always energized and full (after having a healthy lunch). It's just the way my brain works, but unfortunately our system doesn't give a s***. And I'm stuck with doing much less than my abilities on exams. It's frustrating. I can solve the exact same problem and even university level problems when I'm at home, but when it comes to exams, i stop functioning after the first hour. It's depressing. $\endgroup$ – user494951 Feb 18 '18 at 0:45
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I have had to work on 4- to 6- hours math an physics tests for four years in total in my curriculum, and I train student or 5-hours long math tests. I will not attempt to be as thorough as other answer and just insist on a few points that seem central to me:

  • have some food (cereal bars) and water on top of eating adequately before the test,
  • train progressively (first do a 2 hours homework test, then increase 1/2 hour at a time until you get to 4 hours),
  • do not hesitate to take small breaks (empty your head, take a deep breath, a sip of water, relax 1mn, then start a new problem/question).
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If the claim is that your home and in-class performance is radically different than performance on this test, to a degree that shocks your teacher, then it sounds like you may be suffering from some amount of test anxiety.

Advice for dealing with test anxiety is not altogether different from other answers here: Over-practice. Keep a regular schedule with exercise. Get a good night's sleep the night before. Eat well that morning and bring water/snacks. Stretch and release tension during the test. Move around the questions to refresh and get traction. In extreme cases, speaking with a counselor/therapist for relaxation techniques is recommended.

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