Planning for Exams While Avoiding Stress

As exam-season rolls around once again, the perennial problem of exam stress and its effect on the mental health of young people and those around them comes back into acute focus.

As an education technology company, we work with over 100,000 students and their teachers in the run-up to exams. From my own experience of teaching students, often those suffering with mental health issues, I have found a few methods that can make a great difference.

Prepare

The main reason for students to feel stressed about exams is simply the feeling that they aren’t ready to do quite as well on the day as they could or should. Or, if they are ready, they don’t trust themselves to perform to their best under pressure.
There are a few questions students can ask themselves that will help in planning revision:

– Do I truly know what knowledge and skills are required for each exam?
– Am I comfortable with those requirements?
– If so, am I confident that I can reproduce what I know under pressure?
– If not, am I confident that I can “get there”, and are there areas I’m prepared to ignore and risk leaving out?

This all speaks to the “Rumsfeld Law” of unknown unknowns. Not knowing what you don’t know is a great cause of unacknowledged stress, but it’s easy to fix. All you need to do is to find the exam specification document (commonly known as the syllabus, available online), and grab a few coloured pens. Print it out and colour it in line by line as follows:

– Material you know confidently – known knowns – should be coloured green;
– Material you need to practise – unknown knowns – become amber;
– Material you need help with – known unknowns – should be red.

This takes you 99% of the way to having your revision planned. N.B. You can do the same without the waste via a decent pdf-reader.

The next step is to tackle the red bits, practise the amber bits and occasionally check the green sections to keep them fresh in mind. The Tassomai blog has more on using practice papers and other resources in this way.

Finally, there is the risky but often sensible tactic of leaving some bits out. Remember that stress itself will likely cost you more marks than a few ‘omissions’. If there are one or two ‘horror topics’ that you know you’re going to struggle with, it might be worth ignoring them so you can focus on acing the rest. You don’t need to score 100% to get a top grade. There’s something akin to the Pareto Principle here – if you’re up against it, don’t use the majority of your time on something that will yield relatively minor benefit. Saying “I’m leaving that” can be a huge relief.

Don’t Overprepare

In my time working with athletes, I also saw the negative effect of overpreparation. There’s an old, possibly apocryphal story of an experiment where college sprinters were asked to do their 100m sprint with “90% effort” to set a baseline, then after sufficient rest, to do their sprint at maximum effort. It turned out that the “90% effort” runs were faster than the max efforts. This was attributed to the effects of “trying too hard” creating tension in antagonistic muscles that ultimately impaired performance.

As with running, so with thinking – the relaxed mind is likely to think faster, think more clearly, and think more creatively. Remember to set your expectations fairly and make time for fun, to be happy, and to spend time relaxing with friends, pets and family, and you’ll be at your best on the day.

Be SMART

Athletes set their goals and plans with the requirement that they are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound. Think about these ideas in planning daily or weekly revision targets to keep your time and work in healthy balance.

Keep A Journal

Thinking about what you’re doing, what you’ve done and how you’re feeling day to day is vital if you’re to become aware of what behaviours result in which feelings or performance. Simply write each day on one page of a journal:

– What you did today
– What went well
– What you think you should do more of/next
– How you’re feeling (with regard to energy and stress)
– What reward you’ll give yourself at the end of tomorrow’s session

It only takes 3 minutes and will help you to build healthy, sustainable, productive work habits.

Talk About Your Feelings

Stress management is far, far better handled if you’re able to talk to others about how you’re feeling. Extend that journal exercise into a conversation with a parent, a sibling or a teacher and check in with them regularly to let them know how you’re doing. The good and the bad. Teachers are amazingly good at supporting students in need and, just as the squeaky wheel gets the oil, the student who asks for help will be the one that gets it. Don’t keep stress to yourself – you’ll be amazed at the lengths those around you will go to to help you get the best out of your exams.

Parents! Are You A Source Of Stress?

While the above advice is for students to support their healthy exam prep, parents should quietly ask themselves whether the expectations they’re setting, the environment they’ve created or the habits they may impose might be exacerbating a child’s level of stress.

I have had a number of difficult conversations in the past with parents who were emphasising the “grade” over their child’s perception of themselves or their relationship with learning. Sometimes a child’s sense of self-belief and enthusiasm for education might be improved in the long-run if the pressure can be reduced a bit.
Remember, if the aim is that your child performs at their best, think about what you can do to get them at peak performance. Might a little R&R have a greater net benefit than an extra hour of geography?

All In It Together

Exam time is, of course, stressful for students but teachers, school leaders and parents will be feeling the stress too. By thinking a little bit ahead of time about how to keep things in perspective, how to communicate clearly and regularly about how it’s going, and by all working together towards the same goals, exam time can be less stressful and more of an opportunity to celebrate students’ achievements in learning.

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