Managing Examination Stress
Stress is our body’s response to challenge or excitement. It has physical and emotional effects on us and can create positive or negative feelings. As a positive influence, stress can help compel us to action. As a negative influence, it can result in feelings of distrust and depression, which in turn can lead to health problems.
The stress response is only a problem, if it occurs too often, exists for too long a time, or occurs with a force that is too strong.
Our goal is not to eliminate stress, but to learn how to manage it, and how to use it to help us. What we need to do is find the optimal level of stress, which will motivate but not overwhelm us.
In order to use stress to your advantage you need to:
Have realistic performance expectations:
Each student should strive to reach their potential but some students demand too much from themselves in examination situations. It is important that expectations are realistic.
Students should use their own performance as a standard against which to set goals and should resist comparisons with other students. “Don’t try to be better than your friends or predecessors, try to be better than yourself.”
Manage outside pressures:
Often unrealistic performance expectations and demands placed on us by other people make us feel pressured and stressed.
Managing competition for scarce resources:
More and more students are chasing fewer college places. Consider other ways of achieving the same goal or consider alternatives to your primary goal.
Students spend much more time visualising failure than they do success. You can build your confidence and minimise stress by being positive about what you do know, not negative about what you don’t. Prior to the examination visualise yourself going into the examination room, feeling confident and successfully completing the examination paper. Include as much detail in this visualisation as you wish. The more real it seems the better.
Practice relaxation techniques:
Much of the discomfort you feel during a panic attack is due to your voluntary muscles tensing.
Try this exercise, while sitting or lying somewhere comfortable, work through your whole body, muscle by muscle, tensing the muscle for 10 seconds and then relaxing it for 10 to 15 seconds. Work from your feet through your body to your scalp. Take your time and relax.
If panicky try distractions:
Mental distraction techniques help, not only in slowing down your heartbeat, but also to refocus your attention away from the stressful thoughts.
- Count backwards from 100 in 6s.
- Breathe in for the count of 3, hold for the count of 3 and exhale for the count of 3. Repeat as many times as you want.
Improve your breathing technique so that you inhale and exhale more deeply – this oxygenates your blood and makes you more able to deal with the problem that is causing you to become stressed.
Eat food that helps to avoid stress and improve concentration:
Some foods are more calming than others. Milk and bananas for example contain naturally occurring morphine like substances, which help to calm you down. Raw vegetables are also helpful. Some sugary foods on the other hand, just help to wind you up.
They may give an instant "energy hit", but that’s at the cost of making you even more nervous than you were before.
Keep your salt intake low, because too much salt depresses brain function. Salt intake increase blood pressure, and high blood pressure can harm memory, attention span and reasoning. Don’t eat processed food as they contain trans fats that disrupt the messages between neural pathways. Get plenty of protein and vitamin B and omega-3 (found in oily fish). Eating seeds such as sunflower, sesame and pumpkin seeds can improve your concentration. Water is also important for concentration in class and during study.
Get rid of nervous energy through exercise:
Exercise for cardiovascular fitness three to four times a week (moderate, prolonged rhythmic exercise is best, such as walking, swimming, cycling, or jogging). Apart from calming you down, exercising also increases the rate of blood flow around your body, as well as the brain. It appears that this can really help you to think more clearly, and enable better learning.
Avoid stress enhancing drugs:
Caffeine is a very powerful drug, it acts directly on the central nervous system and heightens emotions. You will have enough emotions just from worrying about examinations. Nicotine can act as a stimulant. Smoking increases your blood pressure.
What you should do before the examination
Manage your thoughts:
Think success. Remind yourself of your past successes, your ability, as well as the study you have done.
Remind yourself of all the good consequences of success.
No negative self-statements just think rationally.
Don't worry, worrying won't achieve anything.
Do not cram:
Don’t stay up “cramming” late into the night. You will be confused, stressed and irritable. Don’t try learning any completely new material. Use the time for a general overview of your course. Get together any materials you need for the next day.
Ensure that you get sufficient sleep, being alert is your greatest tool for examination success. If you are well rested, you will think more clearly, remember better, and will be able to solve problems and think creatively.
Healthy eating before the examination:
Eat before the examination, preferably something with protein and complex carbohydrates. Your stomach might be in knots, but if you don’t eat before the examination, you will feel tired and hungry during the examination. Keep high sugar and high fat foods to a minimum, as these will only give short energy boosts and guarantee a huge drop in energy levels.
Arrive at the examination venue early:
Establish the location of the examination venue. Make sure you know how to get there with the minimum amount of stress. Arriving on time will allow you to remain calm, focussed and relaxed.
Avoid the pre-examination conversations:
Avoid discussion with other candidates about how little or how much study they have done. If you don't know the topic at this stage you are unlikely to learn it from your friends. Also any discussion now may confuse you.
Its okay to be little nervous, if you are too casual you won’t be alert. But if you are too nervous it can be hard to concentrate. Take a few slow deep breaths. Shrug your shoulders a few times. Gently roll your head, stretching your neck. Do this before you start and periodically during the examination.
Examination performance is a skill, not a talent. Success has as much to do with technique as with knowledge.
Reading the examination paper:
Read through the entire paper before you start. Identify the questions you prefer to attempt and eliminate those you can’t answer so that you have fewer questions to review later. Even when faced with the situation where you can’t answer all the questions, you are still better off attempting the required number of questions.
Check what questions are compulsory.
Timing of exam papers should be calculated during examination preparation.
Determine how many questions.
Consider the weighting of marks for each question and allocate your time accordingly.
Estimate how long each answer with take.
Allow time for choosing, planning, writing, checking and proof reading.
You may be able to answer some questions more quickly, buying extra time to devote to more difficult questions.
Read all questions carefully:
Read all questions word for word. The most frequent mistake is misunderstanding the questions asked. Circle or underline key words. (An explanation of key words can be reviewed in this booklet).
Keep checking that you are answering the question asked, not just writing all you know about the subject.
Place a number beside each part of the question so that you remember to answer all parts. If the question has several parts, use these parts to structure your answer.
Answer the “easy” or the “difficult” questions first:
Answering an “easy” question increases your confidence, helps get you thinking and triggers your memory for “difficult” questions. If you start with the difficult question, this strategy has the advantage that you are tackling the more difficult in a fresher state.
Watch the clock:
Watch the clock and once the allocated time was elapsed, move onto the next question.
If you haven’t finished leave plenty of space in the examination booklet. If you have any extra time at the end, you can then complete the answer.
If you cannot remember something, don’t panic, just move on, it will probably come back to you later.
Brain storming/memory release:
Jot down ideas, which immediately come to mind, especially those, which include specific vocabulary from the course. Brainstorming is not the time to consider the quality of your ideas – it’s just a chance to see them on paper and see how they might work together, so write first, analyse later.
If you think about the topic for one question while working on another, write down your thought in the margin and then go back to the question you are working on.
- It stops you thinking about the question while you are doing another.
- When you are attempting the question you have the key points available (you might be tired or losing focus by this time).
- If you run out of time the examiner can give marks for the points that you have written.
Use the writing process: brain storm – organise – outline - add supporting information - write, revise and edit.
Make an outline plan or brief notes for your answers in the examination booklet. This provides guidance and a reminder to which you can refer whilst answering the question. Examiners may be prepared to give you credit for a plan if your answer is unfinished.
Write as clearly as possible: examiners can be irritated by untidiness. Remember examiners can't give marks if they can't work out what you've written.
Don’t be afraid to write BIG. Don’t worry about running out of paper, you can ask for more.
Take a selection of differently shaped pens into the examination hall. These can ease the pressure on your fingers and thumb when writing.
Checking your answers:
Read through your answers, checking for omissions and clarify points which are unclear.
Check for possible mistakes of fact, spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Correct mistakes as neatly as possible.
Write any additions on the left-hand page, and show insertion points clearly.
Review your examination paper:
Check that you have not left out any answers or parts of answers.
Do not leave early from the exam hall.
When the exam is over, forget it and concentrate on the next one. Don't contemplate what might have been.