Managing Exam Stress

Are you feeling stressed about your coursework? Are you having trouble planning and scheduling your time? Stress associated with school work or before an exam can often be overwhelming.  We will explore ways in which you can reduce stress levels so that you can study, produce coursework and manage exams more effectively.

As we discussed in an earlier article, stress can often be positive at times. (Click here to read more), but excessive stress can prove to be maladaptive.

Learning is often a complex process. We can often experience barriers which affect our ability to learn or reach our full potential. If you are not happy with the way you are studying or with the results you are achieving, you may need to think about what is getting in the way.  

We will discuss the following here, but excessive symptoms may warrant a discussion with a trained professional such as a counselor or with a tutor.

 

stress

Do any of the following scenarios apply to you?

  • Issues with planning and time management
  • Adjusting to new school life
  • Issues with the course
  • Studying in a second language
  • Struggling to meet deadlines
  • Lack of confidence
  • Struggling to concentrate
  • Trouble juggling commitments

Planning Your Work

“Failing to plan is planning to fail.” (Alan Lakein)

Making a plan of your tasks and coursework can help you manage stress. Draw out a realistic timetable - it will give you a clear idea of your direction and time frames.  When you are assigned a task, estimate how long you think it will take you. It’s advisable to add extra time, as you may have been over-optimistic or something unexpected may crop up leaving you short of time. There’s nothing like running out of time to induce heightened stress levels!  Allowing plenty of time will counter-balance this.

Consider the resources you will need to complete your work (e.g. books, research tools etc.).  Prepare these in advance. Get the book from the library in advance of your study day.  It’s better to allow extra time rather than staying up the night before the deadline, drinking coffee to stay awake (which in the longer-term will increase stress levels).

It’s also important to understand how you feel in the lead up to the exam. Does the thought of sitting in an exam hall fill you with dread and fear? If so, help is at hand. Relax! You can conquer those fears and exam stress by using some of these simple stress reduction strategies:

Practice handwriting

It may sound strange, but many of us are no longer accustomed to writing by hand for long periods. When was the last time you wrote extensively by hand rather than on a computer? If you have to sit a long exam, where you will have to do a lot of handwriting, you may want to practise this prior to the exam – a good way of practising is to find previous exam papers and to complete them under exam conditions

Breath

Take in several slow breaths and let your mind focus on releasing the tension when you exhale. It’s a simple concept, but one that is quickly forgotten when panic sets in.

Stay positive

A negative mindset is the best way to psych yourself out of doing well and make yourself panic. Focus on the positives. Tell yourself that you can do this. Also, remind yourself that it is not the end of the world if you don’t get full marks on the test.

Don’t over study

It is very tempting to try to cram studying into every spare minute of the day in preparation for exams but this may be counter-productive. Of course you want to make sure that you have covered subject areas adequately. But this should not be ’crammed’ shortly before the exam as the brain gets tired, it will not function as well for your exam performance. Give yourself the brain power you need by scheduling study time in shorter sessions in the lead up to exams.  Give yourself the breaks you need to keep your mental health in a positive place. Burn out will not help you to do well on your exams.

Eat well

In the lead up to the exam and on the day it’s easy to think, ‘I don’t have time to make a sandwich. This chocolate bar will do for lunch’. There’s also the tendency to drink lots of caffeinated drinks such as coffee and cola. The problem with both of these is that your blood-sugar levels will fluctuate. Your energy will plummet after a short time and tiredness will follow. Conversely, eating and drinking healthily will aid concentration and ultimately reduce stress. Drinking plenty of water combats dehydration, helping you maintain concentration and minimize tiredness.

Exercise

A great way to improve brain function is to improve blood flow to that part of your body. Exercise is a fabulous way to do this. Exercise also helps to relieve emotional stress by elevating levels of endorphins in your body.

 

Revision

As you have done with your coursework, develop a timetable.  If you feel the need for silence while revising, try to make this possible. Alternatively you may wish to listen to music whilst revising. If so try to listen to something that is familiar.Have breaks Make sure you have a break from revision - try to arrange things so that you have a "day off" revising. Take regular mini breaks whilst revising. Even if it’s just to stretch your legs for 5 minutes. This will mean when you re-start your revision, you will be a little fresher and with your stress at a more productive level.

Aim for broad understanding

Try to revise one section of notes, or one set of topics together; if you have trouble with specific details of a given topic, try to gain an understanding of the subject area generally. It’s better to have broad understanding of a number of topics rather being ‘an expert’ on one, particularly if you are required to answer several questions from a variety of topics. Also, it’s likely to increase your stress levels if you keep pushing yourself to learn something that just isn’t sinking in. Go on to something else and try again later or another day. If you just choose to ignore topics altogether, you may be limiting your options too much when it comes to answering questions.

 

The Exam

Before the exam

Make sure that you have everything you need for the exam before you leave home including any equipment.  As you approach the exam hall you may begin to feel really nervous and stressed. This is natural but the key thing to do here is to get your ‘nerves’ under control so that the stress levels you experience will be useful, even productive! What is important is not to allow this to get out of control. Remember to take deep breaths.

Just before you go into the exam

You may see friends and classmates waiting to go into the exam. If you are prone to getting stressed by exams, pay attention to the conversation and how it is making you feel. For example, if the conversation is having a reassuring effect on you, stay and ‘feed from that’; it may even calm you down. However, if other students are very nervous, talking about failing or even how amazingly well they have studied, the impact on you may be that you begin to question how prepared you are and cause self-doubt. If this happens you may wish to consider excusing yourself. It is important that you are not negatively affected by others just before you enter the exam.

During the exam

Stay calm and take your time. Set out everything you need on your desk e.g. pens, pencils and additional paper for notes. Set up your clock or wristwatch so that you can see it just by looking up and not having to move anything out of the way.Make sure that you have everything necessary - question paper, answer papers, additional sheets etc. Ask the invigilator if something appears to be missing.Then consider the following.

Check the instructions

Firstly check the instructions so that you fully understand what is expected of you, including estimated timings for each question. Misreading instructions can lose more marks than poor revision!

Other students are nervous too

Often students feel that everyone else starts writing confidently, straight away and that they exude confidence. Remember that this is only your perception of what is going on chances are they feel stress too!

Plan your time

Read through the paper calmly, remembering to breathe for at least five minutes. Then plan how long you need to spend on each section to complete the paper in the time available. You are likely to score far more marks by some spending time on every section than spending all your time on a small part of the paper.

Answer the question

It is tempting to quickly choose a familiar question. Be careful as it’s possible to misread them when you’re in a hurry. Take your time to steadily unpack the questions; you will inevitably make a better selection.

 

If the pressure gets too much…

Breathing

If you feel panic arising and your mind is going blank, take a few minutes to do a breathing exercise and give yourself time to calm down. This may be in the form of just calmly and slowly breathing in and out whilst focusing on your breath. This will be time well spent if it helps you to work effectively for the rest of the exam.

Visualization

Another technique for relaxation is visualization. Try this very simple visualization: Close your eyes for a couple of minutes and think of a place with positive associations, real or imagined place. Visualize what it looks like. If it’s a beach for example, bring up the image in your mind’s eye, the colors, the smell of the sea, the warmth of the sun on your skin. Imagine it as clearly as you can whilst breathing calmly. This may just be enough to bring you to a more relaxed state to resume your exam.

After the exam

“What’s done is done and can’t be undone” William Shakespeare

It is easy to fall into the trap of wondering how well you performed. Other students may be confident about how the exam went, but this doesn’t mean they did better than you.

Have some fresh air and food and take some time out to relax before you start revising another topic.

Think positive! Congratulate yourself for getting through it!