A new study presented at a psychology conference in London this week suggests students who bring water to drink while they sit exams may improve their grades, presumably by keeping themselves hydrated.

The findings are the work of researchers from the University of East London and the University of Westminster and were presented at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference in London on Wednesday.

Dr Chris Pawson, school Leader in Learning and Teaching and a senior lecturer within the School of Psychology at the University of East London, told the media:

“The results imply that the simple act of bringing water into an exam was linked to an improvement in students’ grades.”

While the study did not investigate the reasons behind the results, Pawson speculated there might be several possible physiological and psychological explanations, one being that there might be a direct physiological effect of hydration on thinking ability, and the other, that consuming water might help students calm down and reduce the anxiety that is known to damage exam performance.

For their study, Pawson and colleagues recruited 447 undergraduates in three different cohorts and monitored whether they took drinks into exam rooms with them. They also noted the types of drinks they took.

They noticed that first year undergraduates were less likely to take drinks into exams than students in higher years.

When the exam results came out, they related the marks to whether those students had taken water with them into the exam.

In their analysis, the researchers took into account coursework marks to rule out as far as they could, the possibility that the students most likely to take water in with them were the more able ones.

They found that the students who did better in the exams tended to be the ones who took water into the exam room with them.

(The researchers did not examine whether the students actually drank the water: so this does not rule out the possibility that the influence may have come wholly or partly from just having the bottle there, rather than actually consuming its contents).

Pawson said more research would be needed to tease apart these factors and their underlying explanations.

But whatever the result, he suggests it is probably a good thing for students to try and keep themselves hydrated while sitting exams.

Judging from the results of this study, it appears that first year undergraduates in particular need to hear this message.

There is an implication here for education policymakers too: whether students, at all levels of education, should have access to drinks during exams.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD