Managing exam stress and planning for exams
One of the most stressful parts of school is exams! The mere mention of exams can lead to fear, panic, sweats and sleepless nights. The lead up to exams are the perfect opportunity for our minds to catastrophize - but what if I fail? my mind will go blank, my future is ruined, everyone will do better than me, I will be embarrassed, what if I wet myself in the exam hall?! And, to rub salt into the wound there is always a friend who will say “oh, I never revise, exams don’t bother me, I don’t get stressed”.
The key for exams is preparation – preparation for BOTH the exam topics and preparation for the inevitable worry and stress.
An example – Eve’s story of preparing for exams by Eve
I hate exams and find them incredibly stressful. I struggle to sleep and eat in the run up to exams. Teachers have told me previously that I make ‘silly’ mistakes in exams and have lost marks which makes me worry even more. In preparation for my last exams, I spent much time timetabling what I wanted to revise and had a busy jam packed revision timetable. But, I often struggled to complete what I had planned which made me more stressed and ruined my timed plans!
So, together we took a step back and first looked at the environment. Eve showed me where she was doing her revision – the kitchen table and how she would get her books into her school bag every night and get them out every day after school but had to move them for family dinner. We arranged the space with the agreement of her family so that she could have an agreed area of the table that would be left clear for her and no family items would encroach. We chose an area with good lighting, facing away from distractions and found a box that she could have at the side of her desk area where she could keep books she was not using and a pencil pot for her pens and highlighters.
We then sat down together and looked at her subjects and the topics, Eve colour coded them and we also looked at the weeks coming up to her exams and social events she had booked in and planned chunks of time with breaks and time for both calming and physical activities. Eve had some great revision approaches such as taking notes, highlighting key words, reducing notes down and practice questions. Finally, we discussed stress/relaxation techniques for Eve to try to practice regularly, especially before exam questions.
Although Eve still found the process challenging she felt more confident, relaxed and in control when she went into the exams and achieved her expected grades.
Tips for preparing for exams
Plan a routine - Where, when, and what
Where - One of the first things to plan for is where the exam revision is going to take place. A place with limited distractions, good lighting and good wifi, an area where books, pens, laptops etc. can be kept in/near the area, as such it is essential it is agreed as a family. Ideally it should be an area that for the exam period is sacrosanct. This might mean moving other items out of the area for the revision period.
When – plan for short bursts that will be successful – use a timer. Start with a guaranteed short and successful time such as 15 minutes for example as this can gradually and quite swiftly be increased. Keep using a timer as you need to plan breaks to move as well as meal times, snack times and bedtime!
What – colour code subjects/topics. Add up the number of subjects and within subjects the number of topics and divide by the days available – NOT everyday as you will benefit from having a day off and there’s no doubt there will be days when you are busy with activities.
Ensure times for overlearning and revision of revision – repetition is key to memory and confidence.
Also, it is important to plan in short periods of time daily to practice calming/destressing techniques – see below.
Revise - How – what to do
Revision is both an expansive and reductive activity. Break down subjects/topics as much as possible. Read over notes/school work on each topic – organise them and add to the notes with more notes, highlight key words/phrases/formulas. Revision notes often expand when you start but as you become more familiar with the topics you can reduce the notes into for example, mind maps, revision cards with key words, posters, flow charts or timelines. For more info take a look at Tony Buzan’s books as he provides some great tips on note taking and mind mapping.
It can be helpful to talk out loud about the topics and record on a phone/dictaphone to listen back to. Teaching someone else is also a great way to develop your own understanding of a topic/subject - ask family members to listen as you explain a topic, if you feel comfortable ask them to ask you questions.
Test yourself using your revision cards and use practice tests. Research suggests that a key to exam preparation is practicing tests/exams. Getting familiar with the types of questions and the number of marks expected is essential – start without timers then start timing yourself as time limits are key.
Managing exam stress – practice stress management/calming techniques
Practice calming strategies such as breathing, counting backwards, visualisation and relaxation activities as part of the routine that can be taken into the exam room.
There are lots of different breathing techniques which would be suitable for practicing at home and in an exam. It is helpful to try a variety of breathing techniques and then choose one or two. For example, what is often called balloon belly breathing, where you put your hands on your belly, breathe in and let the air fill the belly like a balloon and slowly breathe out and feel the belly balloon deflate. As another example, square breathing, breathing in for four seconds, holding the breath for four seconds, breathing out for four seconds and holding the breath for four seconds and repeating.
Visualisations are an approach whereby you picture a relaxing time/place and think about/focus your mind on all of the sensations you would experience at the relaxing place. Students often tell me that visualisations really help settle them and help them calm before exams. The Big Book of Calmers (Mosley and Grogan) provides an excellent example specifically for exam/test situations, however, the visualisation can be focused on anything/anywhere ‘calming’. For example, Eve developed the following visualisation, ‘on the beach’ that she ‘visualised’ when she got into the exam before she took out her pen to start:
I can hear the sea and the seagulls and smell the doughnuts from a shack up the beach. I can look up to the clouds, the sky and the sun, I can look left to my Mum who is relaxed and asleep and I can look right and see people paddle boarding on the water.
It is helpful to practise visualisations when calm regularly. It can also be helpful to have a small picture of the calm place such as the beach perhaps on a keyring that can be touched and looked at as a reminder of the calm, safe place.
There are also some lovely mindfulness activities that settle and calm the brain and body which can be effective before exams/tests, for example the activities in ‘Sitting Still Like a Frog’ (Eline Snel, 2013) are great for children, young people and adults.
Practical physical activities can also be helpful, such as pretending to squeeze a lemon in one hand, dropping the lemon then relaxing the hand, repeating with the other hand and then both hands.
Thank you for reading – I hope this provides a little insight into planning for exams and managing exam stress and hope the tips are helpful.
If you have concerns about a child/young person struggling with exam anxiety it may be helpful to involve an Educational Psychologist.
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If you or someone close to you needs urgent help you must contact local services.