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Dealing with Exam Stress

“Life deals the deck. You play the cards.”

This logic is as applicable to exams as it is to life in general. The deck life has dealt you is examinations, at least for the moment. And you are the person playing the cards.

Exams are difficult and for many may be the first of the stressful experiences, life throws at us. True too that it seems unfair to burden young people with that stress at such an early stage. But such is life.

I could bore you to distraction with accounts of my own encounters with stress back in my exam days, but I will confine myself to one. There was a dream that occurred almost every night before my final state exam, a dream of waking up to see my Geography books piled high at the foot of the bed. You’ve guessed it, Geography was not my favourite subject And, this dream returned in my early years of teaching when I was preparing students for exams. You see even teachers get stressed!

You’ve got to take stress on board

Right now, you may be thinking that the only way to handle this must be to bow out, not do the exams! But look at what you would be depriving yourself of, the fun of graduating with your friends, the career and life that you have your heart set on. You cannot let the bogey-bear of stress deprive you of all that!

Rather than missing out on all that life has to offer, you can turn this demanding situation to your advantage by learning how to deal with stress. And the techniques you use in dealing with exam stress, can be applied to other challenges life throws at you. They can become part of your artillery in the same way that other skills learnt in school will.

In other words, you will have the confidence to “play the cards” your way!

Learn how to play those cards-some helpful hints

Facing into preparing for an examination, keeping an eye on the following will make the experience more manageable.

Time Management: “I don’t have time,” does this sound familiar? Work to a timetable. I know, you have heard it all before but there is a sense of satisfaction in knowing you are the one controlling the situation. Next look for the little bits of wasted time. Yes, we all have them. Some of them can be put to very good use. You will be surprised at what can be done before breakfast on a weekend morning, An essay can be planned. A Math formula can be memorized. And don’t forget to build in some time for leisure. A walk, playing a game, hanging out with family and friends are all essential. Build those times into your routine as well.

Goal Setting: The beginning of an exam year can be scary. All roads seem to lead to exam time. But, break what you have to do into manageable proportions. Advice I give to my students is to keep lists. I can hear you saying that adds to the paper chase an exam year becomes. But it works. Compile a list of work to be covered for each subject. Do that at the beginning of the year. Revisit the list at the beginning of each week. Tick off what has been done for the first time. Tick off the item again when it has been revised. Tick it off again when you can say you feel prepared to tackle that topic on exam day.

As the year progresses a glance at your list will show you what point you are at. A quick glance will tell you what you have achieved and what you may need to look at again.

Your Study Place: Students differ in the places they like to study in. Some prefer study halls, for others it’s the kitchen table. Ideally it should be a place free from distractions, a place that you can literally call your own while you are at work. Because study is work and calls for a designated workspace. Try to have a space where your books and notes are, and your timetable and study plans are within easy reach. All that will cut down on the necessity of having to get organised every time you sit at your desk. When studying at home a lot of students find it helpful to leave their study timetable somewhere an adult can see it. The word will quickly get out that there are times when you must not be disturbed, and it will cut down on arguments about your routine.

When Studying: Ever wonder why classes are split into short time periods? Because research has shown our minds function best over short periods. Do the same with your study. Marathons studying the same subject can be a huge waste of time. Try doing 50 minutes on a topic. Then break for 5 or 10 minutes. Return to study a different topic for another 50 minutes, then break again for another 5 or 10 minutes. This will ensure you are getting the best value out of your time.

Reward Yourself: Long stretches of study can be exhausting and unless you are a fabulous all-rounder you will not enjoy every topic you are studying. This is where you have to play tricks on your brain. The topic you least like is generally the one you find most difficult. Do that first and save yourself the dread of having to focus on it later. That done, you deserve a reward. Next study your favourite topic, the one you would happily devote all your time to. Follow this pattern throughout you day’s or night’s study. Another good approach is to study your most difficult and least loved topic before a break for a meal or some entertainment. Knowing a break is coming up will mean you will be able to cope with something difficult for a little while.

Revision: Try to make revision a part of every study session. In an ideal world you are jotting rough notes on a scribble pad as you study. At the end of the study session allow 15 or so minutes to look over those rough jottings. This should solidify the information you have been taking in. But to make sure you retain it you will need to look over that work again at the end of the week and one more time at the end of the month. Doing it this way you are cutting out the need for the marathon all night study sessions some students pull coming up to exams.

Note Taking: “Take it down.” If you are a student, you have heard a teacher say this at least once. Of course, you have to take notes to have a record of material done in class. But there is also another reason for doing this. By writing something down you have a much greater opportunity for remembering it. So, notetaking should form part of your study routine. People vary in their method of note taking. The more visual learner will draw diagrams or sketches, others will use a highlighter. The method doesn’t matter. What matters is you are committing the material to memory.  Or you may even be making your own of a text by writing phrases from it in your own words. A good note taker will have everything they need in the run up to exams in a ring binder or a computer folder.

Diet and Exercise: So far, I have dealt with exam preparedness in academic terms. But preparing for exams is a physical marathon as well as a mental one. Remember the mantra, “A healthy mind in a healthy body.” Exercise, what you eat, wellbeing can all have a major impact on examination results. The student who doesn’t take care of his health at this time is more likely to pick up infections that can cause him to fall at the last fence. Not being an M.D. I am slow to give advice on what you should be eating. But as a teacher, mother and survivor of the examination system I can comfortably say that exercise, fresh air, a good night’s sleep are all essential for the exam student. You feel guilty about taking an early night or a walk in the park? See them as a vital part of your preparation for those exams.

Exam Day: The day has come. Consider yourself a success before you get the all-important results. You have come through the preparation. All you need to do now is the exam and avoid pitfalls some people get trapped in. Read the paper carefully. Keep an eye on your timing. Before exam day you should have a plan, ie. how much time you are going to spend on each question. Avoid comparing yourself to anyone else in the exam hall. You and your exam are what matter now. Don’t leave the hall early. If you get a bright idea outside the door, they will not allow you back in to add it to your paper.

And most importantly when you leave that exam there is nothing more you can do about it. Post-mortems on the paper are inevitable but don’t dwell too much on them. You probably have another exam to get ready for and at this point, your day’s work in the exam hall is in the lap of the gods.

When all’s done and the exams are over, reward yourself once again with a long break. How you did is now a problem for the correctors. You’ve earned that break. Enjoy.