Managing exam pressure

Managing exam pressure

Whether you are in secondary school or university, exams are part of academic life. As exam season approaches, it’s natural to feel nervousness and apprehension.

It is understandable to feel nervous as exams are an important part of the learning process. However, by adopting strategies that support learning, you can navigate this period with confidence and fulfil your potential.

Imagine on the day of each exam that although feeling uncomfortable and restless, you know you have dedicated time and effort to prepare. You will be able to manage your exams with more confidence.

What gets in the way of revising for exams?

Exams tend to be viewed as an additional demand to meet a requirement, rather than a learning opportunity to consolidate learning. And after a busy academic year, students feel tired and worry about preparing for their exams.

We generally dislike evaluations because of the uncertain outcomes. The concern is about poor results as these can negatively impact students’ progression to the next level. In addition, they can affect their job prospects.

When preparing for exams students face uncertainty – not knowing what questions will come up, and worry about how they will perform under pressure. Many find this the most difficult part because of fear of forgetting the material, which could lead to a low mark as a result.

Students often procrastinate starting revision, as it is perceived as difficult work. More so as in most courses there is a lot of material to review. When tired, it is harder to concentrate which increases worry about the ability to remember the content and answer questions under exam conditions.

It can also be distracting when others around them appear to be engaged in more interesting activities, making it challenging to concentrate on revision. With so many distractions, it can be easy to pick up the phone and scroll through social media. Time passes by with little progress, which can add frustration and worry about failing the exams.

Strategies to manage exam pressure:

Focus on learning: Even if you do not feel like studying, reflect on what matters most to you to identify your priorities. Identify the content your teachers and lectures highlighted during the year. Then focus on understanding the topics, and think about ways the content can be applied to real-life scenarios. It will help you to make connections and remember the material.

Although worry thoughts can be distracting, redirect your attention to the material you are reviewing. When thoughts about not doing well interrupt your focus, remind yourself that it is normal to feel apprehensive because it is a demanding task.1Oettingen, G. (2014) Rethinking positive thinking. Inside the new science of motivation. New York: Current. This does not mean you cannot do it. Instead, interpret the feeling as a signal that you care about your studies and wish to do well.

When feeling unsure, remind yourself that doubts are normal. Notice these and remind yourself that learning takes time. Focus on your purpose and make an active choice to revise because you want to understand the content and value of developing your knowledge and skills.

Maintain perspective: View exams as a component of the learning process, but they do not define you. Keep things in perspective and focus on understanding the material.2Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L. & McDaniel, M.A. (2014) Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Press.

When under pressure, thoughts may randomly focus on future negative scenarios. When you notice these, remember that these thoughts are just thoughts – not facts. To distance yourself from them, ask yourself: “Is this thought helpful?””No, it is not.”

Notice your 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 helpful to move to release tension and restore balance.3Lieberman, D. (2020) Exercised. The science of physical activity, rest and health. New York:  Allen Lane

Think about developing a growth mindset, that is, being flexible and viewing obstacles as challenges which includes taking lessons from our mistakes. Learning new things requires stretching beyond our comfort zone, which can be uncomfortable as we question our academic skills. Instead, reframe the experience as a challenge and turn your attention to your ability to learn. Then, focus on the progress you are making.4Dweck, C. S. (2017) Mindset. Changing The Way You think To Fulfil Your Potential. London: Robinson.

Focus on your values, and give yourself credit for your work each day. This will boost your confidence in your ability to improve and make progress.5Bandura, A. (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Focus on developing mastery:View each revision session as practice time to increase knowledge and skills, including the ability to learn from mistakes. When we focus on mastery it enhances our confidence and belief that we can learn from challenges which can get us closer to our goals.6Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverance. London: Vermillion.

When understanding the topic better, and remembering key concepts, we can feel more motivated as we see progress. Keep in mind that it takes time to learn new things, so persevere with your efforts, and gradually, it will become manageable.

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 in the moment.

Follow through with your intentions. Practice taking a small step and then another. Then, repeat. Consistent efforts will increase your capacity to persevere, which will turn it into a habit.7Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, I. (1975). Belief, Attitude, Intention, and Behavior: An Introduction to Theory and Research. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Managing stress: Exams can evoke a range of emotions and physical sensations. The worry is about doing well in a high-pressure situation, and the fear of failure can trigger self-critical thoughts.8Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The pursuit of perfect. How to stop chasing perfection and start living a richer, happier life. New York: MacGraw-Hill Books.

Instead, consider setbacks as part of the learning process. Review your notes and work and ask yourself: “What can I learn from this? What can I do differently next time?”

When reaching a topic that you find particularly difficult and cannot concentrate because you feel tense, frustrated or worried, ask yourself, “What is this paragraph about?” How can the concept be applied?” 

If we think that studying specific topics should not be so challenging, it can erode confidence and determination to continue. Take time to breathe slowly and focus on the present moment. It restores balance and strength. It also helps to gain perspective on the topic.

On the day of the exam, it is normal to feel nervous as it is an important event. However, focusing too much on our performance increases stress and we overthink what we are doing. This fills up our working memory with these thoughts, making it difficult to think about the answers.9Beilock, (2010) Choke. What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to. New York: Free Press

When you find it hard to answer a question, pause and take a deep breath. Give yourself a couple of minutes to restore balance and recharge your brain. Reflect on the question, make notes about the topic to familiarise yourself with it, and then you can select what is relevant to answering the question.

To prepare for the exam day, reinterpret the situation as an opportunity to learn. View the stress symptoms as signals that this event is important to you. It is essential to maintain energy levels. To do this it is helpful to create a flexible routine that includes breaks, time away from screens, contact with others and time for self-care.

Prepare mentally to view this period like a physical training routine – we improve with consistent practice. 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.

Manage distractions: We get distracted when the task is difficult. Reframe it, and view it as a challenge to manage. Keep in mind that learning new things takes time.10Berkman, E.T. (2008) The Neuroscience of goals and behaviour change: Lessons learned from Consulting Psychology. Consulting Psychology Journal, 70, 28-44.

Sometimes it can be difficult to start revising if you do not feel like doing the work, which is distracting. Notice thoughts that distract you, such as “It’s too difficult” or “I can’t do this.” Then pause and ask yourself: “What one step can I take now to make progress?” 
Describe the steps to take in detail, and see yourself doing one task, followed by another and another.

Learning requires repeated efforts to understand a topic, remember it and apply it in context. Take one step (no matter how small) and persevere consistently.11Gollewitzer, P.M. & Oettingen, G. (2015) Psychology of Motivation and Actions. In Wright, J.D.(Ed) International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioural Sciences, 2nd Ed,, Vol.15. Oxford. pp.887-893.

Practice 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 like you would discuss it with a friend. What questions would you ask to help them find alternative solutions?

Acknowledging that we are human and make mistakes reduces pressure and allows us to focus on what we are learning.12Gilbert, P. & Choden, (2013) Mindful compassion. Using the power of mindfulness and compassion to transform our lives. Great Britain: Robinson
Acknowledge your effort and work throughout the year. And, even if you have not worked as consistently as you wanted to, focus on the present moment and continue learning the material regularly.

Avoid comparing yourself with others, as it can increase doubt and worry about whether you are doing enough. Everyone is different and therefore will have a variety of ways to revise for exams. Identify what works for you and develop a study pattern you can maintain.

Let go of thoughts about results whenever they appear. These are not predictions. They are just thoughts. Maintain hope that with your efforts and determination you will make progress and trust yourself that you can manage the challenge. By shifting your focus from the outcome to the learning process, it will reduce tension and increase your capacity to learn.

Footnotes
  • 1
    Oettingen, G. (2014) Rethinking positive thinking. Inside the new science of motivation. New York: Current.
  • 2
    Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L. & McDaniel, M.A. (2014) Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Press.
  • 3
    Lieberman, D. (2020) Exercised. The science of physical activity, rest and health. New York:  Allen Lane
  • 4
    Dweck, C. S. (2017) Mindset. Changing The Way You think To Fulfil Your Potential. London: Robinson.
  • 5
    Bandura, A. (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
  • 6
    Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverance. London: Vermillion.
  • 7
    Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, I. (1975). Belief, Attitude, Intention, and Behavior: An Introduction to Theory and Research. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  • 8
    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.
  • 9
    Beilock, (2010) Choke. What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to. New York: Free Press
  • 10
    Berkman, E.T. (2008) The Neuroscience of goals and behaviour change: Lessons learned from Consulting Psychology. Consulting Psychology Journal, 70, 28-44.
  • 11
    Gollewitzer, P.M. & Oettingen, G. (2015) Psychology of Motivation and Actions. In Wright, J.D.(Ed) International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioural Sciences, 2nd Ed,, Vol.15. Oxford. pp.887-893.
  • 12
    Gilbert, P. & Choden, (2013) Mindful compassion. Using the power of mindfulness and compassion to transform our lives. Great Britain: Robinson

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