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Beyond Revision – A Guide to Exam Stress Management

26th February 2019

Young female sits at a desk studying a book for her examsWhen it comes to exams, we may all experience a sense of apprehension as we ponder what questions may come up and how well we might perform. To prepare, we might spend time revising or practising but this is not all we can do. There are actions we can take to make our minds ready to learn, to store and to retrieve information; especially when under stress and pressure. Here we will look at exam stress management – how you can approach exams with resilience, positive attitude and a healthy mind. Because this will give you the best chance to showcase your full potential when the time comes. When you feel you have revised all that you can; these suggestions may just get you those extra few marks that could be the difference between grade bands.

Focus on what you want, not what you fear:

Have you ever tried avoiding stepping on the cracks on a pathway? If you’ve ever done this you’ll know you’re more successful when you focus on the slab where you want to step; not the cracks you want to avoid. This shift in your approach focuses you on your aims, rather than what you hope to dodge. We can apply this theory to many situations, including how we approach exams.

Focus on the outcomes you want, instead of what you don’t want. Our focus can easily become our target and if you’re not careful your worst fears can easily become realised. Once we have recognised our fears, we can use them as fuel to motivate us. We do this by turning our focus away from our fears and towards what we want to achieve. You don’t hit an arrow on the target board by focusing on the space around it where we don’t want the arrow to fall. You focus on the centre; the ideal result, to arrive somewhere near if not exactly where you want to be.

Check the facts:

The unknown can feel uncomfortable and difficult to face. So in our search for certainty we may use our imagination to fill in the gaps so that we “know” what to expect. I have experienced many students becoming fortune-tellers in the run up to exams; predicting failure and poor outcomes. It’s  important to remember that the future is unwritten; therefore we’re  not able to predict it with any certainty or accuracy. Our fears are the product of our imagination which may actually never happen. The imagined reality we fear triggers associated stress. Stress about our imagined circumstances in which we may have made assumptions, overgeneralised and catastrophised the facts.

To promote a shift in your thinking, away from forecasts of catastrophe and disaster, it can be useful to check your perspective of events are accurate, balanced and realistic. It is better to remain open to all possible outcomes; failure, success and all that is in between. We may sometimes chose to expect the worst. By preparing for the worst we protect ourselves from disappointment. This can sometimes bring with it stress, anxiety and a sense of hopelessness that may just limit performance. I wonder, is softening the blow really worth the time spent worrying and the risk of restricting success? Would it really hurt any less just because you saw it coming?

Play the part:

As well as focusing on what you want as an end result following the test, it can also be helpful to think about and envisage how you would like to be during the exam. It has been shown that there could be performance benefits of being in a “smart” frame of mind prior to sitting an exam. Dutch researchers discovered that students who spent 5 minutes thinking about and writing down what it would be like to be a professor, before answering 42 difficult trivial pursuit questions, did on average 13% better than those who didn’t do the 5-minute priming task. Notice here that they considered what it would be like to be a professor; you don’t have to convince yourself you’re smart if you don’t believe you are. Just imagine what it would be like.

There have also been numerous studies demonstrating the benefit of teaching the topic to others. By doing this we support our own learning and performance. Even if you feel uncertain of the material you are explaining, by playing a role of teacher, expert, specialist or enthusiast, you enter a smart mind-set that can boost performance and grow your confidence. So instead of allowing negative beliefs about yourself to invade your thoughts and hold you back, dust off your acting skills or step into your vlogger shoes and review the information or tutor and guide your audience through the topic.

Stop and Go:

As the regularity and duration of revision increases, we may engage in less physical activity and spend fewer hours asleep as we adopt a more sedentary, static lifestyle with our head in the books. Exercise and sleep may be some of the first things to be sacrificed during the exam period to make way for revision, yet they are hugely beneficial to our memory, performance, creativity and wellbeing and worth retaining during the exam period. Physical activity alone has been shown to help focus attention, improve long term memory and triggers the production of chemicals which help to boost our mood and prepare the brain and body for action. With regular activity punctuating your week, your time spent revising is likely to be more effective as focus and memory improve, with the same benefits also experienced in the exams themselves.

Another easy source of these exam boosting benefits is sleep, which has also been shown to aid storage of memories and prevent forgetting. Sleeps enhances performance, inspires creativity and problem-solving, and soothes emotional upset too. Therefore sleep is an all-round tonic for exam preparation. Jenkins and Dallenbach demonstrated that sleep can improve memory by a staggering 20 to 40 percent. Not a bad way to get extra marks! Try to get in at least 8 hours of sleep a night and at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day to really gain the full benefits of these brain and mood boosting tricks.

Coach Your Mind:

Revision before a test is clearly a crucial element of any exam preparation but as detailed here, it is not all you can do. As you approach the exam period, coach your mind to focus on what you are aiming for, be prepared to feel uncertainty, adopt a smart frame of mind and put your magic ball away so you are not tempted to predict your fate. Revision is important but don’t let it bully time spent sleeping and being active. They are all key players in your team and may just get you those extra marks.

CXK’s Emotional Wellbeing Service is a paid for service available to schools and colleges across the south-east. As part of the service, we provide person-centred counselling and brief solution-focused interventions which build emotional resilience and coping skills in children and young people.

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