Preparing for exams during Covid-19

Preparing for exams during Covid-19

Preparing for exams during Covid-19 presents new challenges due concerns about the pandemic. Perhaps you or some of your family members may have been ill, and in some cases, people have died under challenging circumstances. 

When dealing with personal problems and when experiencing grief, it is essential to allow time and space to deal with thoughts and feelings and grieve the loss of loved ones. 

It is difficult to concentrate on preparing for exams when life events overwhelm us. In these circumstances, it is essential to connect with others, nurture relationships, empathise with each other, and allow time to grieve. 

Different cultures and families have different ways of dealing with grief. There is no one way to express loss and sadness, although most of us want to be with family and friends, and some may need time alone.  We need time to reflect and process our feelings, time to appreciate loved ones and share our sadness that they are no longer with us. 

Part of the adjustment process is to maintain a daily routine to manage our energy level to deal with our emotions. Sometimes, it might feel trivial to focus on an exam when such a momentous event has happened. Taking time to grieve with family and friends allows us to learn to adjust to the new situation.

It is normal to reflect on what is important and evaluate our priorities. We may notice that things that mattered before are no longer a priority and focus on the things we value most. 

Even if you may not feel like studying at first, you can view it as part of your daily routine to help restore balance. Taking steps to continue with activities allows us to build strength. For example, spending time with family and friends.

We are in a world full of distractions, making it more difficult to focus our attention on our work. You may notice that you have a lot of material to study and wonder how you will review it all in a few weeks before the exams.

Many institutions may have arranged to have open book exams online. Preparing for this new way of taking exams requires knowing the material to apply the knowledge you have learned to answer the questions. It also requires having strategies to manage emotions to maintain motivation and manage the pressure.

Do you get thoughts about failing the exams? Or, worry that your mind may go blank and not be able to remember anything? It is normal to feel apprehensive and concerned about taking exams when you care about your studies and wish to do well. They are a requirement to move on to the following year, or if you are a finalist, to graduate. 

You may notice worry thoughts when anticipating the challenge of taking exams. Although having these thoughts can be distracting, you can train yourself to focus your attention and be productive. When the content is difficult, you may wonder about your ability to learn it. Perhaps you notice that your mood fluctuates depending on how you feel your revision is going. If you understand the topic and remember key concepts, you are likely to feel better about your progress. Keep in mind that it takes time to learn new things, so persevere with your efforts, and gradually, it will become manageable.  

Each of us has a unique way of dealing with challenges. Therefore you may find different things helpful to what others do to revise.

Here are some tips to make the most of your revision time.

Create a study routine: Preparing well for exams involves having effective study habits. These help to reduce tension and can have a more positive impact on your performance. Prepare mentally to view this period like a physical training routine – we improve with consistent practice. In addition, having a routine helps our body to maintain the energy level to sustain our efforts.

Plan to revise each day, and if you miss a day, focus on getting started by taking a small step as soon as you can. You may be familiar with the Pomodoro technique, where you plan to study for 25 minutes followed by a 5-minute break. After two or three sessions, insert a longer break when you can have lunch, connect with others, and engage in other activities. Also, make it flexible to allow for unforeseen events (e.g. not feeling well).

Take action: Having the intention of doing something is a strong indicator that we are more likely to act. However, it is not sufficient. We need to turn it into a decision to act. Follow through with your intentions, practice taking a small step and then another. Then, repeat. The repeated efforts will strengthen your determination to persevere with your efforts, which will turn it into a habit (Fishbain & Ajzen, 1975).

What matters is that you keep going and focus on the progress you are making. Maintaining your focus on making gradual progress will allow you to persevere with your efforts (Duckworth, 2016).

Manage worry thoughts: Let go of anticipated consequences of the exam results. When under pressure, there may be a tendency to anticipate future negative scenarios, but keep in mind that these thoughts are not facts. To create some distance from them, ask yourself: “Is this thought helpful? No, it is not.”

Then, notice the physical reactions and acknowledge you are feeling tense, worried, nervous, or stressed. Then pause, breathe slowly (this will trigger the nervous system’s calming response) and stretch to ease the tension in your muscles. It is good to get up and move to release tension and restore balance. 

You can keep track of what you do each day by making a note in a diary or notebook. So, after the exams, if you have thoughts such as “I should have done more”, you will be able to look back and remember the efforts you made during your revision.

Develop a growth mindset: Build your confidence in your skills and ability to learn by practising making efforts regularly, and focusing on the progress you are making (Bandura, 1997). Having doubts about your academic skills are expected as it means you are stretching beyond your comfort zone.

A growth mindset refers to our ability to always learn new things, and this includes learning from mistakes (Dweck, 2016).
Focus on your values – you are responsible and committed to your studies. Give yourself credit for the work you do each day and focus on making progress.

Managing procrastination: Decide to make continued efforts – consistently. Think about what you want to achieve. When the task is difficult, view it as a challenge that you can manage – it is new, and you are learning it, so it is expected that it will take time to learn it. Break the task down into smaller steps (Berkman, (2008). Take one step (no matter how small) and focus on making progress. You can surprise yourself and do much better than you expected.

Notice thoughts that distract you, such as thinking “it’s too difficult” or “I can’t do this”. Then pause, and ask yourself: “What one step can take now to make progress?” 
To boost your motivation, imagine the feeling of having done well in the past (after completing an assignment or passing an exam). How did it feel? Remembering this feeling can energise you to act. Describe the steps to take in detail to see yourself doing one task, followed by another and another. Consider what you need to get started and for each step.

When dealing with challenges, we tend to have tunnel vision, only focusing on the current problem and worrying about a possible negative future scenario. If feeling stuck, review what you have done already to identify what one thing you could do differently. We tend to forget that we have faced difficulties before. You got to this point in your studies because of your previous efforts.

Sometimes it can be hard to get back to revision when we do not feel like doing the work. We tend to rely a lot on how we feel to decide what to do. Reflect on what matters to you, what do you want to achieve? Learning takes time, and it requires repeated efforts to understand a topic, remember it, and then apply it in a given context (Gollewitzer & Oettingen, 2015).

Practicising self-compassion: We tend to be very subjective and critical of our work (especially when worried about failing). Instead, take a step back and view your work as if it were that of a friend. What questions would you ask to help them find alternative solutions?

When thinking about results, it is difficult to manage the uncertainty and wonder about the possible outcomes. To manage uncertainty, focus on what you are learning, remembering all the effort you have made to study throughout the year. And, even if you have not been able to work as consistently as you would have wanted to, focus on the present moment and decide to continue learning the material regularly. Focus on what you can do now, and view it as an investment in your future, even if it is very uncertain how things will turn out.

Research indicates that when people understand themselves, they tend to be more able to act because they recognise they can overcome setbacks (David, 2016).

Managing stress: Take regular breaks from your desk: Go outdoors, stretch, move, walk. Now that we are in spring and the weather is nicer, you can enjoy going for walks outside. It will be relaxing, and you may find that ideas flow more quickly after the break.

Keep hydrated, have regular healthy meals, and keep a regular bedtime pattern (not late nights as this will affect your sleep pattern). Exercising will help to manage tension, it will increase alertness, and relaxation exercises or do mindful breathing that will help to relax your mind and body to get a good night’s sleep.

Avoid comparing with others, it can be distracting, and it can increase doubt and worry about whether you are doing enough or wonder how others appear to spend less time studying while you feel you must work so hard. Everyone is different and therefore will have a variety of ways of working that may not suit you. Identify what works for you and develop a study pattern that is possible to sustain during the exam period.

Reframe fear of failure: Often, it is fear of failure that triggers highly self-critical thoughts (Ben-Shahar, 2009). Instead, consider setbacks as part of the learning process. Review your notes and work and ask yourself: “What is the learning from this? What can I do differently next time?”

When you notice that things are not working out as you hoped or feel frustrated because you made a mistake, view them as a learning opportunity. For example, ask yourself, “what is happening here? What can I try to make a change?”
If we think that studying specific topics should not be so hard, it can erode confidence and the determination to continue. Take time to breathe slowly and focus on the present moment. It helps to restore balance and strength. It also helps to gain perspective to can focus on what matters to persevere with your efforts.


“In my experience, if you keep working away and keep open to new approaches, you get there in the end.” (Richard Wiseman)





Bandura, A. (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The pursuit of perfect. How to stop chasing perfection and start living a richer, happier life. New York: MacGraw-Hill Books.

Berkman, E.T. (2008) The Neuroscience of goals and behaviour change: Lessons learned from Consulting Psychology. Consulting Psychology Journal, 70, 28-44.

Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L. & McDaniel, M.A. (2014) Make it stick: The science of successsful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Press.

David, S. (2016) “Emotional agility. Get unstuck, embrace change, and thrive in work and life.” London: Penguin

Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverance. London: Vermillion.

Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, I. (1975). Belief, Attitude, Intention, and Behavior: An Introduction to Theory and Research. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Gollewitzer, P.M. & Oettingen, G. (2015) Psychology of Motivation and Actions. In Wright, J.D.(Ed) International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2nd Ed,, Vol.15. Oxford. pp.887-893.


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