6 sure-fire strategies to manage exam stress

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6 SURE-FIRE TIPS TO MANAGE EXAM STRESS

by Joyce Chong (updated 28 September 2018)


Exams can be a stressful time - it’s the culmination of months of hard work, and the stakes can be high. Thoughts about your future career ‘hanging in the balance’ can heighten stress levels and ramp up anxiety. The problem is that too much stress and anxiety actually harms your cognitive performance, yet it’s at this point in time where we see students doing things such as cramming, staying up late to study, and cutting back on exercise and adequate nutrition - behaviours that have negative outcomes for performance. With this in mind, we’ve put together six sure-fire tips to help you manage exam stress.

 

 1.     STUDY SMARTER, NOT LONGER

Come exam time it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that every waking moment should be spent studying. In reality, preparing well for exams isn’t about cramming absolutely everything in, nor is it about studying for every single moment of the day.

Instead, try the following strategies: 

  • Understand the times of day that you’re better able to cope with more mentally-taxing tasks like digesting topics that you don’t enjoy or don't understand well. Structure your studies accordingly.

  • Spend time revising what you've have studied – repetition is how you consolidate things which means that they’ll be easier to recall during the exam.

  • Learn what you have to learn. That is, pay close attention to what types of questions typically come up in past exam papers, what lecturers emphasise, and what the core objectives of the subject are. By focusing on learning these, you’re giving yourself an excellent head start.

It may also be a good time to sharpen your study skills. Learn how to learn better by improving your reading and comprehension, improving your memory, and understanding your preferred learning style (visual versus verbal). Not sure how to? Check out this article on How to Choose the Right Study Techniques. You can also check out our online course Nimble Noodle (more details in the blue box at the bottom of this page!), which helps students perform at their peak.


2.    Practise, practise, practise

You'd train your little heart out for a marathon, so why wouldn’t you do the same for exams? To help get you fit for exams you can practise:

  • Waking up at a time early in the morning so you’re alert for morning exams. That means keeping a steady waking time throughout the entire week, rather than late nights and late mornings on weekends.

  • Simulating exam conditions by sitting a practice exam at a desk, and writing complete answers as you would in a real exam. Given that we rarely write continuously for 2 or 3 hours nowadays, it’s a good opportunity to get exam-fit.

  • Testing your recollection of what you have learnt by setting yourself sample questions and pop quizzes.


3.    Limit cramming/all-nighters/performance-enhancers

Before you scoff at our suggestion to avoid cramming or using performance-enhancers, hear us out. Keeping your energy levels up and reducing fatigue so that they don’t affect your performance (both speed and accuracy) are important. Exam periods last for over a week, and you want to be able to last the distance.

Critically, get adequate rest - research has shown that 17-19 hours without sleep leads to poorer accuracy and slower reaction times on cognitive tasks, equivalent to performing with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05%! So if you wouldn’t drink alchol and sit an exam, consider if it’s time to go to bed just a bit earlier. [1] 

It’s also a good idea to limit caffeine and other stimulants (including nicotine) - after all, what goes up must come down at some point in time… and hopefully not on the morning of your exam. 


4.      Take care of the building blocks

Diet, exercise, sleep – we’re talking about the foundations of good health to facilitate studying and minimise stress that increases during the exam period.[2] Having worked with many students over the years, we’re also realistic that these tend to be the first things to go out the window when life gets stressful, which is exactly why we’re highlighting this as an important way of managing stress.

  • Diet matters because you need energy so you can study for sustained periods rather than feel fatigued after a sugar- or caffeine-hit. [3] Instead, look at clever ways to sneak convenient yet healthy foods into your day that will keep your energy going. This can be as simple as doing food prep over the weekend and stocking up on healthy snacks.

  • Exercise helps burn up the stress that builds up during exam time. [4] If it’s hard to find time to go to the gym when you’re studying, incorporate it into your routine and multitask it with revisions if you must!

  • Sleep helps the body to rest and recharge, consolidate what you have learned during the day, and maintain peak cognitive abilities (see Point 3 on why sleep matters), so don’t scrimp on it.


5.    LEARN TO Relax…

Exams can get pretty stressful, so apart from taking care of the building blocks of diet, sleep, and exercise, it’s also important to get some rest and relaxation.

Plan for some down-time, and schedule it at the end of a study period so that it can motivate you to get through a particularly tricky topic that you have to plough through.

Also consider breathing as a simple and easily accessible way of decreasing your stress and anxiety. It’s as simple as breathing in and out through your nose over eight seconds, and from your diaphragm rather than your chest. This is a technique that you can use right in the middle of your exams too, when you feel ‘thrown’ by a question.


6.    Check your thoughts

Your thoughts can really impact on our stress levels. Say you believe that you will:

  • Fail this exam;

  • Therefore fail all of your exams;

  • Fail all of your subjects; and

  • And that will be the end of your future.

Your thoughts increase your anxiety, and unfortunately excessive levels of anxiety have a negative impact on performance.

If you find that your thoughts create a lot of stress and anxiety for you, it may help to ask yourself if catastrophising is getting in the way. What is the likelihood of failing? What are the likely consequences of failing? Has anyone ever failed a subject but ended up finishing their studies? Has anyone ever not completed their studies but went on to be successful? By getting a reality-check you can turn down the noise on the thoughts and help you to contain your anxiety. 

 

Hopefully these tips will help you in the lead up to your exams. If you find that you want to learn more about preparing for exams, or about managing exam anxiety, contact us to make an appointment.

 

GOT TO GET INTO STUDY MODE? GET NIMBLE NOODLE.

Learn ways to prepare better for your exams by getting on top of your studies. In Nimble Noodle, an online course for students where you can learn to use your brain flexibly to stay focused until the end. We focus on a holistic approach to exam performance - academically, psychologically, and physically. Nimble Noodle for students covers:


GREAT TIPS ON HOW TO BOOST YOUR STUDY SKILLS

Studying is more than just opening your books and rote-learning the information contained in your textbook, nor just attending classes and summarising what the teacher covers. In Nimble Noodle we cover:

  • How to set yourself up for a great academic year, semester, or term by planning your studies with good time management.

  • Understanding how your memory works and how to work with its limitations to boost your performance.

  • How to read and take notes effectively rather than writing everything you read/hear. Pages and pages of notes do not automatically turn you into an excellent student. You have to engage with your notes and study strategically.

  • How to be effective when it comes to assignments by taking a strategic approach to planning how to tackle your assignment, how to conduct research, and planning what to write.


HOW TO STAY ON TRACK WITH STUDIES (BURNOUT AND PROCRASTINATION, WE’RE LOOKING AT YOU!)

An academic year can seem really long. A semester may seem less of a stretch, but in reality it means that you have to be able to sustain your performance to make it over many weeks. So how do you stay on track with your studies when there are multiple distractions, fun things to do instead, and not burn out before you get to the end? In Nimble Noodle we’ll look at:

  • How your mindset can demotivate and derail your best intentions, and how to shift your self talk to help you stay on track with your studies. Feeling motivated to approach your studies, or feeling demotivated and procrastinating on a task, all stem from your mindset and powerful self-talk. We take a deep dive into mindset and how to make it work to your advantage.

  • How to look after your physical health so that you don’t crash and burn. Think of the classic stressed-out student who sets aside a healthy diet, exercise, and sleep, who instead spends every waking moment studying - how effective will this student be when it comes to the crunch?

  • How to manage stress, intense emotions, and setbacks so that they don’t derail your studies. Feeling overwhelmed can lead you to check out of your studies, so why not learn to managing distressing emotions so that it’s easier to refocus on your studies?

  • How to manage your time better and to set up an environment that helps your studies. Learning about your peak times of alertness can boost your studies.

  • How to think critically about your study progress (meta-learning).


HOW TO PREPARE FOR EXAM DAY(S)

Finally, we cover how to prepare for exam time with specific tips covering:

  • How to study strategically when it comes to your exam preparation

  • What to do on exam day


ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Nimble Noodle is brought to you by our Clinical Psychologist Dr Joyce Chong, and Dr Kevin Yong, GP and blogger at eat.move.chill. They’ve worked together over the years to help students get set for their studies and exams, and have put together their best tips that work so you can access them all in the one place.

Joyce has a special interest in learning and memory, having completed her PhD on the link between anxiety and working memory. She also worked for many years with students at University Counselling and Psychological Services, helping them stay on track with their studies through a combination of developing strong study skills, managing moods that get in the way of effective studying, and also developing the right mindset for success.

Kevin is a firm believer in the benefits of a healthy body for wellbeing and the mind. His focus is on helping students look after themselves in ways that support their learning and concentration, and to ensure that they stay well and illness-free for this very significant year of their lives.

As a special thank you to our The Skill Collective readers, the first section of Nimble Noodle (covering How to study strategically, Mindset, and Study Skills) has launched! You can learn more about Nimble Noodle and ACCESS AN EARLY BIRD DISCOUNT ON NIMBLE NOODLE by clicking on this link HERE.

Want more? You can connect with The Skill Collective in the following ways:

  • Contact us to make an individual appointment to get started on making changes.

  • Get access to our FREE resource library filled with exclusive tip-sheets on Wellbeing, Mental Health, and Performance that you won't find here on the blog

  • Join our FREE 14-day Wellbeing Challenge. Tailored for busy lives we're talking wellbeing tips for better body, mind, and heart in just 15 minutes a day, delivered straight to your inbox.



References

[1] Williamson, A.M., & Feyer, A-M. (2000). Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. Occupational Environmental Medicine, 649-655.

[2] Andrews, A., & Chong, J. (2011). Exploring the wellbeing of students studying at an Australian university. Journal of the Australia and New Zealand Student Services Association, 37, 9-38.

[2] http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Fatigue_fighting_tips?open

[4] Chong, J., Elliott, J., & Murray, S. (2005). Avoiding the black hole of despair: A guide to managing exam anxiety. Perth: Curtin University.