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How To Deal With Exam Stress — A Guide By SLT

Exam stress can leave students feeling overwhelmed, unprepared and unable to perform to their full potential. Having prepared thousands of students to prepare for and excel in their exams, Simply Learning Tuition is pleased to share our expert advice on how to reduce exam stress.

When exams are looming, it can be difficult to enjoy any activities, or think about anything that doesn’t include studying. Many students will experience feeling that they should be studying all the time. Others feel unable to study at all, from reasons including lack of motivation, anxiety and the pressure on them to perform well; all demonstrating exam stress. Understandably, it is a very worrying time. Before the exam day arrives, the Simply Learning Tuition team has advice on boosting exam performance which can help you feel more prepared. In addition, there are several approaches you can take to help reduce stress:

1. Looking After Yourself

Making sure you are eating well and getting enough exercise and sleep will help lessen the physical effects of stress. Often, stress manifests physically, and can leave us feeling drained and on edge. It is important to maintain good habits, as these in turn will have a beneficial effect on exam performance.

A good night’s sleep can have a fantastic effect on energy levels, productivity and morale throughout the day – without proper rest, not only is the body working harder and using more energy, so is the brain. As qualified psychotherapeutic counsellor Meredith Husen writes, in our article on supporting anxious learners, ‘a lack of sleep alone can create a feeling of anxiety as tasks seem harder to manage without a clear head and well-rested body.’

Studying whilst hungry can also negatively impact your ability to concentrate. But be careful – not all meals are created equal. Choosing healthy and well-balanced meals over junk food will provide you with the sustained energy and alertness that can help in exam periods. Exercise is widely regarded as one of the most effective methods of reducing stress. Even a 10-minute walk has been shown to have beneficial effects on the mind and body. Getting out of the house for some exercise also removes you from the study environment; in new surroundings and with some fresh air, it automatically feels less stifling.

2. Time Management

Exam stress can often originate from feeling a lack of control, especially surrounding the results of the assessments. This lack of control often stems from the fact that it can feel incredibly overwhelming trying to remember and keep track of everything to do; e.g. what to prioritise and what to simply brush up on. This stress surrounding studying can often cause procrastination, which in turn causes more stress as students fall behind or into poor study habits, e.g. studying late into the night and thus not getting enough sleep.

Others find it all too easy to lose focus during study. Mobile phones can also have a big impact on procrastination, and serve as a distraction during studying. Whilst turning phones off is clearly the most effective way to prevent looking at them, there are those who find music/podcasts beneficial to listen to during study. In which case, Focus apps such as Flora are useful in preventing and managing phone distraction during studying; working in a similar vein to the Pomodoro technique, Flora virtually plants a tree for every focus timer you complete – if you leave the app, or check your phone whilst on a focus timer, the plant is ‘killed’ (an unusual motivation, perhaps, but effective nonetheless!).

Out of sight, out of mind is worth remembering: we would consider even deleting social media and/or other distracting apps off your phone during the revision (and subsequent exam) period, to completely remove temptation. It’s definitely not worth the regret, and wishing you’d spent less time online.

Many people find the Pomodoro technique helpful by factoring in regular breaks, preventing burnout and increasing the quality of study. Working initially in periods of 25 minutes, with breaks starting from 5 minutes, students can gradually increase the lengths of time for both. The Pomodoro technique can also increase students’ confidence in their learning; being able to focus for incrementally longer periods of time, lessens the daunting nature of hours sat in the exam hall. Moreover, it can heighten the sense of accomplishment on completing each segment of time, and the associated task for that period – instead of one general, and thus formidable-seeming, subject.

Creating a revision schedule can also be helpful to relieve some of this mental burden; students can plan when to work, when to have a break, and figure out which subjects to study throughout the day. For example, many people believe it is better for the student’s concentration and for the quality of study, to partition the different subjects into manageable sections, and tackle each subject throughout the day with equal attention, instead of spending the whole day on one subject and feeling overwhelmed as a result. A schedule can help discard the pressure of trying to get everything done at once, and create some order for students to follow. It can also be very cathartic to physically cross out the entries once they have been completed!

If you are still struggling for inspiration, Simply Learning Tuition has our own guide to revision techniques for exam success

3. Rest and Relaxation

Exam stress can cause students to feel overwhelmed or that their entire time should be spent studying. This can mean that even break-times become stressful. However, and especially with the help of a study schedule, there is a lot you can do to manage stress and prevent it from negatively impacting your downtime. Perhaps after studying, allow yourself at least an hour of relaxation without anything relating to study or revision, to switch off.

Do whatever you enjoy and will look forward to during the day – watch a film, listen to music and cook dinner, meet a friend to go shopping, or take some exercise. A change in environment or routine can prevent also help studying from becoming tedious, and refresh your mind – making a cup of tea, for example, or taking the dog for a walk. 

Even just standing up and walking around the room can help reset your mind if you are feeling stuck. Having a dedicated workspace outside of your bedroom (e.g., the kitchen) also prevents you from associating studying with your personal space, which means you can relax properly during your leisure time.

Additionally, factoring in enjoyable activities e.g. sports, baking, and socialising can decrease the pressure surrounding exams. They can act as an incentive to get through that last hour of studying, or something to look forward to after the exam is over. If there is an activity you genuinely enjoy, partaking in it during the day in between study sessions can interrupt the stress of revision. Especially if you create a revision timetable, it becomes easier to integrate activities or even time spent doing nothing at all – but guilt-free, and without exams on your mind.

4. Talking to Someone

Of course, if exam stress is having an incredibly negative impact on your mental health, it is always advisable to talk to a friend, parent or teacher. There are also a multitude of online resources, too, such as Mind, the Samaritans and Childline, who are there to listen, and to give advice.

Exam stress can be very isolating, and especially with the individual nature of studying and sitting exams, it is easy to feel alone. Talking to others about how you’re feeling is an incredibly effective neutraliser of exam stress – simply just by knowing other people are going through the same thing. You will naturally be able to help each other through this shared experience – ‘A problem shared is a problem halved!’ 

Some people can find exam preparation too difficult to accomplish by themselves, and need extra guidance. Study groups, for example, allow you to interact with others, and consolidate your learning together. Even just working in a public space, such as a quiet cafe, a library or a friend’s house, can create an easier and more comfortable environment in which to study. 

Regardless of your ability, however, private tutors can be incredibly helpful when it comes to exam preparation, managing exam stress and allowing students to receive specialised attention away from the pressure of a group setting. Working with private tutors gives students a private space in which to learn, grow in confidence, and receive regular, personalised feedback.

From organising your time to guiding you through exam techniques, tutors can ultimately help you to unlock your full potential.

5. Managing Stress On Exam Day

On the day of the exam, you can take control of your day by setting yourself enough time to wake up, eat a substantial breakfast, and arrive at the exam in plenty of time to minimise your stress as much as possible. 

During the exam, if you feel as though you can’t answer a question, it’s easy to panic and start doubting yourself. Instead, read through the question again, write down any initial thoughts you might have – and then move on. You can return to it at any point in the exam! Even just continuing with the questions you feel more sure about, can remind you of relevant information. 

After the exam, take time for yourself. It’s not always wise to dissect your answers with your notes and compare them to other people’s responses – it’s finished, and there is no more to do. Instead, you can take some well-deserved time to relax. It can be nice to have something to look forward to following an exam; plan something for the completion of your exams to celebrate all the hard work you’ve done!

Above All: Don’t Panic!

Stress is a common and natural response to the pressure of exams, but there are plenty of tools, tips and tricks available to help.

Often, and as the University of California, Berkeley has observed, stress can be beneficial, pushing you to your full potential and on your way to achieving the desired results. When it comes to academic assessments, however, people can feel more stress than is of use. In those cases, we hope these tips will help you feel more confident and assured before heading in to your examinations. 

For those whose exam stress seems detrimental to your studies, a personal tutor can be exactly what you need for reassurance, structured study and academic support. Simply Learning Tuition works with tutors who often take on a mentoring role and foster skills beyond academia, and can help you overcome exam anxieties. If your exam stress feels too overwhelming, however, we urge you to consider speaking to a parent, a teacher, or even a professional. There is always someone to listen.

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Ms. P, GCSE Preparation

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