Deal With Exam Stress

(Reading time: 4 - 8 minutes)

Exams are a crucial part of education and the source of stress for many students. In order to avoid crippling anxiety from these pesky evaluations, it is important to approach them with a clear mind and an understanding of how to deal with stressful situations more broadly. In many cases, exam stress is all in the mind, and mental discipline is a large part of what is needed to succeed.

Preparing for the Test

Know what is expected of you. If you have a concrete sense of what you will be tested on, the future test will feel less vague and more like something you can handle.

Study in conditions similar to your test room. There is a phenomenon in psychology called context-dependent memory. It refers to the idea that we are best able to remember things in environments similar to when the information was encoded. A related phenomenon is called state-dependent memory, which means that our memory is better when we learn and retrieve information in similar bodily states.

If you will be in a quiet room during your exam, try to simulate those conditions while you prepare. This is using context-dependent memory to your advantage.

As an example of state-dependent memory, if you prepare for your exam using caffeine, your memory on test day may be better if you have a similar amount of caffeine then, too. Use this knowledge and know that you are taking evidence-backed steps to maximize your exam score; keep that in mind if you are feeling stressed about your upcoming exam.

Take notes in class. Do not just rely on your memory or your course book. Take your class time seriously by taking notes summarizing what your teacher has said. If you are feeling exam stress, you can review your notes; this will help you remember things said in class and give you a sense of mastery over your material.

When taking notes, focus on jotting down keywords and key ideas, rather than trying to take dictation. Copying out the exact sentences is not as important as getting down the main ideas.

Review your notes weekly. This will help you learn the material and transfer it to long-term memory. When time for the exam comes, you'll feel much better prepared.

Manage your time wisely. Do not just cram for an exam last minute; this will surely lead to exam stress. Break up your study time into chunks over days, or weeks even. When you "chunk" your study time over the course of a longer period of time, such as a few days or weeks, you will retain more of the information.

If possible, because of state-dependent memory, try to study at around the same time of day as you will be taking the test. This way you will be similarly tired/awake when you study and when you take your test. You will be used to how you feel when dealing with your course material on test day.

Know where you study best. Think about the kinds of factors that allow you to be most comfortable and relaxed as you prepare for your exam. When setting up a dedicated study space:

Track the level of light in the room. Some people study better with light, others study better in dimmer light.

Examine your work space. Decide whether you work better with a bit of clutter or if a clean, fresh work space is what you prefer.

Pay attention to background noise. Does music help you concentrate or do you need a quiet environment to study?

Find an alternate place to study such as a library. A change of scenery can give you a fresh look at the material and also provide additional resources.

Take frequent breaks. According to psychology studies, the average human brain can only focus on one task effectively for about 45 minutes. In addition, research in neuroscience suggests that focusing on the same thing for too long diminishes the brain's ability to accurately process it.

Stay hydrated. Be sure to drink plenty of water. Not drinking enough water can make you feel sluggish and stressed.

Caffeine can make you feel anxious, which can contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety. Have a cup of coffee or a cola if you like, but don't go overboard. A cup of herbal tea can help you feel more relaxed and stay hydrated. Peppermint, chamomile, and passionflower are good choices.

Reward your achievements, no matter how small. If you are feeling stressed about an exam, be sure to reward yourself for your study time. This will motivate you to continue studying and may even reduce stress.

For example, after studying hard for an hour, take a break and play on the internet for 20 minutes or watch an episode of a TV show that you enjoy. This will help you get your mind off the exam while acting as a motivational carrot that may help you pick up studying again after your break.

Exercise. Regular aerobic exercise can relieve stress, so if you find yourself a nervous wreck before an exam, go for a run or hit the gym.

Eat healthy foods. When you eat unhealthy foods it can make you feel negative, which can interfere with your exam preparation. Therefore, it is important to eat right if you want to have the best odds of doing well on your exam and not stressing about it. Try eating lean meats, nuts, fruits, and vegetables.

Get enough sleep. Not getting a full night’s rest can contribute to feelings of fatigue, stress, and anxiety. Get into a routine and follow it every night. Take note of how many hours a night of sleep you need in order to feel refreshed in the morning; get that many hours of sleep every night. For example, if you tend to be in bed by 10:30 pm then read for 30 minutes before falling asleep, stick to that schedule as often as possible. In this way you will train your body for sleep.

De-Stressing on Exam Day

Eat a proper exam day breakfast. Without a proper breakfast your energy levels will quickly crash and may lead to stress, anxiety, and fatigue. Be sure to have a healthy, energy packed breakfast on exam day. Try eating foods that provide long lasting energy. Avoid foods that are high in sugar, which will give temporary energy but may cause you to crash mid-exam.

Arrive early. You may be nervous about the test itself so there is no need for extra stress from fear of being late.

Read instructions carefully. Before answering any exam questions, figure out exactly what is expected of you. Skim the test to see its content and give yourself a rough idea of how long each question will take to complete. Ambiguity can cause stress, so, by knowing how long the test is, you will reduce your stress.

Put the exam in perspective. Keep in mind that, in the grand scheme of your future, doing poorly on one exam will likely not be that impactful. We often overestimate how bad things will be and how poorly they will make us feel.  Keep that in mind if you find yourself getting stressed out in the middle of your exam. It is probably not the end of the world if you do poorly. Life will go on and you can study harder for the next one!

If you catch yourself stuck in a negative thought loop, try to detach from it. Ask yourself: what's the worst that can really happen if I don't do well on this test? Try to remain logical about it. Can you really handle the worst that could happen? Chances are, the answer is yes.

You can also think of alternatives if you find yourself stuck worrying over how important this exam is. You may be able to retake it. This isn't the end of the world.

Dealing with Post-Exam Stress

Treat it as a learning experience. You can learn from your mistakes; remember that ultimately the goal of an exam is to assess your level of knowledge on a topic. This helps you to identify your strengths and weaknesses.

Instead of being stressed about this information, try to view it as an opportunity for an accurate assessment of your knowledge, which you can then use to improve yourself.

Remember that your performance on an exam is not indicative of your worth as a person. You can do poorly on an exam and still be a good student.

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