Students on exams
How does exam stress affect you?
Jasmine: You just lose your concentration. You can't do anything. You get more worked out over the stress than you do the actual exam.
Francis: It just makes you feel bad, and you lose motivation and stuff.
Jess: I break out, I don't sleep that much, and usually when I get to the exams, it just comes on me and then I just lose everything.
Cathy: Well if I get really stressed, I'll just put off doing stuff and procrastinate a lot.
Steph: I have issues with sleeping around exam time, eating around exam time, everything. Everything to do with my day to day life is, like, affected by stress, I think.
How do you combat stress?
Cathy: Yeah, write things down, like make a plan of what you are supposed to do each day. I mean, it doesn't always work but at least it's something, right?
Francis: Do something fun, like cycling.
Jay: I have a few hobbies, like I like to dance, and I also like to do tricking. Yeah, tricking. So we do flips and all that, so it's really like, you know, it's really satisfying to be like landing things, progressing so.
What tips can you give other students who are suffering exam stress?
Andrew: Join new societies. Do things that you enjoy to get your mind off of it, so that like, when you come back to doing the work, your mind is refreshed.
Francis: I'd say just, just have fun, take a break, go do something you like, and just hang out with friends.
Jay: Legit, like it's really nice, like we have a good community here so, I reckon it’s like, it’s really nice to have, like, new friends, and like, I think that helps, you know, just hanging out with new people.
May: But I think that everyone should have a go actually in adopting some of this, you know, stress reducing tips that they know, you know, meditation or whatever it is for them, right before their exam, during the exam, so that they can reduce exam stress. And one of the best things I could think about is to practice under exam conditions.
Steph: Talk about it with your friends, like if you feel really overwhelmed and anxious, like I bet your friends are probably feeling very similar, so like, make sure you communicate with people and, you know, look after yourself, don't you know, don't neglect yourself for your exams.
Understanding Exam Stress
Carolyn Chow: Exams are usually pretty stressful, it’s pretty full on. Whether you will do well or not is always a problem, so it’s always in the back of your mind. So that kind of stress takes a bit of a toll on you.
Tom Burt: I get really nervous to be honest. They’re like one of the things in life that you just can’t avoid, it’s like death and taxes.
Carolyn Chow: I love uni, but for me the worst part of my course is during exams. When I have an exam coming up, I will feel tense and have trouble sleeping. I would say to myself “I am going to fail, I can’t do this”, and in the exam I would go blank and forget stuff.
Tom Burt: At school, I’d always achieved high results, but when it came to uni, I had a few exams where I didn’t get the results I wanted. Everything was so much harder, and I realized I wasn’t at the top of the class anymore. When it came to doing the work, I avoided thinking about it, would leave everything to the last minute, cram, and stay up late. When the day of the exam arrived, I felt sick to the stomach. I had a headache and I was really anxious about not being on top of all the material. I knew I wasn’t achieving my best, but I didn’t know what to do to improve it.
What is exam anxiety?
Laura Kampel: Exam anxiety is the anxiety associated with preparing for, and/or, the taking of an exam or test. Exam anxiety can affect us both physically and psychologically. Today, people generally believe that the mind and the body is connected. And so, when it comes to stress and anxiety, we need to examine both of these effects. Some of the cognitive effects included negative self-talk. For example, having thoughts like “I am going to fail”, “I can’t do this”, “I can’t concentrate”, and “I’m going to blank out”. Worrying, feeling of hopelessness and/or failing even before the exam. Poor attention and inability to concentrate, and memory blocks or blanking out on things that you have studied.
Tom Burt: I just start to worry and that leads to more worry about things I can’t even control, like being late to the exam because of a bus or someone next door mowing the lawn. It’s things like just start to feed into each other, and I become more and more nervous.
Laura Kampel: Some of the physiological effects include nausea, rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, feeling tense, trouble sleeping, fatigue, loss of appetite, and tension headaches.
Carolyn Chow: I’m a really bad nail-biter so you can tell how bad an exam is or how important it is by the amount of nail I still have on my fingernail.
You can improve your performance in exams by developing your time management and study skills.
- Cramming before the exam isn't an effective way to get to know the material. Use the university study resources to prepare early and get on top of the material.
- A healthy diet will improve your concentration. On the other hand, excessive amounts of caffeine and energy drinks may interfere with your sleep and increase anxiety.
- Sleep is important. Research has shown that students that have good sleep patterns perform 30% better than students who stay up late to study.
- Exercise will release feel-good hormones and improve your concentration.
- You may also need to take some time-out to catch up with friends or family or do something you enjoy.
- Before the exam, learn and practice self-management strategies to soothe and ground your body like mindfulness, relaxation techniques, and visualization.
- Work out in advance what works for you so you can use it in the exam. These techniques will help build your resilience, keep you focused, and make it easier for you to recall what you have learnt.
- You might also find it helpful to learn and practice strategies to soothe and centre your mind, such as identifying unhelpful and helpful self-talk, avoiding negative talk loops and using your imagination and visualization to shift your thinking.
In the exam, acknowledge the fact you may still feel nervous. But manage your thoughts and feelings with the techniques you have learnt. Bring yourself to the here and now and refocus the mind on the task ahead.
And finally, try not to get overwhelmed and procrastinate in the anxious space. Seek help from course co-coordinators, health professionals or counsellors if you feel like you need someone to talk to or clear instructions on how to apply any of the techniques we have spoken about.
How do you take care of yourself during exams?
Tom Burt: Finding something to distract yourself like a hobby. I drum. So, just being able to bash out a couple tunes just for a few minutes just because it is so physical and it’s something that completely gets your mind off study, off the exams. So it just gives you a moment to reset, recharge and that you can go back.
Another thing is mindfulness meditation. So, it’s being aware of what you're thinking, why you're thinking, and it just takes a couple of minutes every day, just to sit there in silence and be aware of your thoughts.
Carolyn Chow: I usually try to step back from the situation and reassess it. So, if I feel stressed out about a subject, I will be like, “why am I stressed out?” Or I’m not studying it more? Then I should study and focus a little more on that subject.
Tom Burt: I find setting goals is the most important thing and finding how you are going to get to that goal, because it’s just setting the goal is all well and good, but if you don't actually find a way to achieve that goal, if you don't set out the steps that you need then there is no point setting the goal at all.
Carolyn Chow: Physical wise, I dance to let out some steam, just like clear my head and get out of that study space. So, I usually I go out into the city or I walk in places where it is actually crowded instead of, like, empty.
Laura Kampel: I'd say to students that anxiety is an adaptive function, it’s an evolutionary function. We all experience anxiety at some point in our lives. It’s really the intensity and the mount of anxiety that we experience that will affect our performance.
So, we all need some anxiety to perform really well, like, for example, in an exam situation. It's when that anxiety really rises that students become overwhelmed and they can't think clearly or perform well.
If the student does experience overwhelming levels of anxiety, they need to look at some of the strategies we've outlined today, or they need to seek help from a professional person.
After the exam
Dealing with stress after the exam
Avoid conversations where you get caught up in comparing answers with fellow students.
Be mindful of your thoughts
Be aware of your worry thoughts. Imagine your thoughts are like buses travelling on a highway. You may have many different thoughts. You may have anxious thoughts, neutral thoughts or calming thoughts. You can choose which bus you want to hop onto and go on for a ride.
Guide your thoughts away from negative channels
Practice not getting on the ‘anxious-thought bus’ but rather staying at the bus-stop. Remember, you can be mindful and step back from your thoughts.
Exercise and stay in the moment
Exercise, go for a walk, or move with some energy. Practice being in the moment. Use a mindfulness exercise to help keep you focussed in the moment. This could be useful before and after your exam.
See the links below for more information.
Do something you enjoy
Do something that you enjoy. Listen to music, call a friend or family member, watch your favourite tv show, make your favourite meal, have a warm shower, or read a book.
Relax using breathing techniques
Relax. Try one of these breathing exercises in this section.
Exams with less stress
Find out how you can reduce your stress levels around exam time.