With the holidays over and gifts unwrapped, students across Ontario cast their attention to the semester ahead. For many students, it isn’t a gift that lies ahead; it’s the near-opposite. It is, of course, the dreaded “exam season.”
For the most part, exams themselves are innocuous and straightforward – a simple demonstration of how much learning you retained from the year behind you. It’s everything else accompanying the exam that causes stress: the sky-high expectations, tight time limits, inadequate preparation, the feeling like you get one “make or break” shot at it, etc. All of these external factors merge to create what’s known as “exam anxiety.”
Exam anxiety isn’t a homogenous or straightforward type of stress; it refers to several mechanisms of stress that can manifest at different times and in separate ways. In this article, we aim to honour the plurality of the student experience by addressing exam anxiety in three categories: pre-exam stress, during-exam stress and post-exam stress. You may be afflicted by one or all three; everyone’s different.
As you enter exam season, let’s keep your mental well-being in our highest interest. Below, find strategies and exam anxiety tips for facing the experience head-on – with confidence, planning and a heap of self-care. Whether you’re enrolled in our online high school courses in Ontario, or have found this article by other means, we hope it helps!
Now is the perfect time to talk about the underlying causes of exam stress, of which there are many. Broadly, causes fall into four categories:
- Lifestyle causes like poor sleep or diet
- Informational blind spots like not knowing effective exam-taking strategies or stress-mitigation techniques (like the techniques outlined below).
- Study habits like cramming, inefficient time management and misguided exam study techniques (i.e., reading the textbook front to back).
- And underlying psychological causes like negative self-talk and pre-existing anxiety issues.
You can read more about exam anxiety causes in this Concordia University article. The purpose of this article is to try and cover all our bases – to offer you tips that effectively address each of these cause categories.
Let’s start at the beginning with pre-exam “jitters” (a common term for anticipatory stress that, unfortunately, downplays its significance). Here are exam study tips, lifestyle advice and informational pointers leading up to your exam.
Avoid Cramming with Ample Preparation
A vital tool in your anti-stress arsenal will be preparation. Cramming everything in one furious all-nighter study session might feel like a sound strategy, but it can severely wear on your nerves. First, cramming is often the product of prior procrastination – and procrastination is a significant stressor. People who are stressed tend to put off facing what stresses them (exam study, in this case). In turn, they create a tighter and tighter timeline for completing the task, which further adds to stress. It’s a vicious cycle that causes and responds to anxiety.
The solution here is to prepare as much as possible. Create a study schedule well in advance of your exam – one that gently but methodically covers all the information with ample room for rest, absorption and retention. With months to go until exam season, create your schedule now. Flexible time management is one of the many benefits of self-paced learning.
Learn What You Can About the Exam in Advance
Beyond studying, you can prepare for an exam by a) learning the technical details in advance and b) developing an exam strategy based around what you know.
The first part is simple, and most students do it intuitively. Find out when the exam is, where the exam takes place (either a physical place or digital section of your online course), and the general structure of the exam (i.e., will there be an essay component, multiple choice, “showing your work,” etc.). Also, learn about exam proctoring by visiting our resource on tests and exams at OES.
The second part involves devising an actionable strategy based on what you know. In part, you’re already developing a strategy simply by reading this article! Your strategy might include planning for restful sleep the night before, opening the URL a half-hour in advance and eating a nutritious meal (more on that below). It might also be a technical strategy – like completing the essay component first or revisiting difficult multiple-choice questions at the end.
Get Consistent Restful Sleep in the Lead-up
As mentioned, sound sleep is a sound strategy for stress mitigation. Our bodies don’t function happily on incomplete sleep cycles. Our mood suffers, our attention wanders, and our stress responses remain on high alert.
Ideally, you’re getting sufficient, restful nights’ sleep now. If you aren’t, consider making it your mission over the next couple of months to stick to a healthy sleep schedule (around nine hours per night for teenagers, with similar bedtimes and wake-ups each night).
Before Your Exam, Eat a Filling, Nutritious Meal
Are you familiar with the term “hangry,” when your stomach sends angry messages to your brain? It’s a real medical phenomenon caused by low blood sugar and subsequent biochemical reactions. In stressful situations like an exam, that hanger can exacerbate anxiety and hamper your ability to focus.
Before your exam, eat a filling and nutritious meal, ideally free of greasy or spicy foods that may cause an upset stomach. When in doubt, stick to veggie-forward meals complemented by proteins and carbohydrates.
Avoid or Limit Stimulants
Studies show that limited intake of caffeine may improve focus. But nearly everyone agrees that too much caffeine or taurine-based energy drinks have the opposite effect. It increases your heart rate and boosts cortisol levels (the stress hormone).
Our advice is to steer clear of caffeine and energy drinks altogether before your exam. If you must, limit your intake to below the daily recommended serving for your age (under 100mg for teenagers).
Stress During an Exam
You’ve made it to the exam on time with ample rest, sufficient nutrition and lots of preparation. So, why do you still feel anxious?
It’s because in-exam stress is a different kind of anxiety. It’s often more acute, caused by the overwhelming feeling of staring down at the moment you’ve prepared for all this time. You may see questions you don’t know, each of which elicits a short spike in stress. And the cumulative effect of not knowing several answers may break your stride.
Let’s help manage those feelings with the tips below.
Take Deep Breaths
Before you open your digital or physical document, take a few deep breaths. Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Repeat.
Simple breathing exercises like this one help regulate your heart rate and send the signal to your nervous system that you are not, in fact, in any danger. It’s well worth the short few moments it takes, even in a timed exam. If you enroll in an accessible online school, you can do these breathing exercises from the comfort of your home computer; it helps to be in a safe, familiar environment as you undertake a potentially stressful experience.
Get a Lay of the Land
Our brains don’t like to be surprised. They certainly don’t like surprises in stressful situations. If you’ve ever scrolled the page of an exam to find that – oh no – there’s a written response component you didn’t know would be there, you can sympathize. Likewise, we’ve heard horror stories of students missing the last page of their exam entirely.
Before you jump in, get a lay of the land. Look through the document to determine its length and contents. This way, you can effectively manage your time in the allotted exam time.
Jumpstart Your Confidence
While not strictly necessary, you may consider answering a few “easy” questions first – questions that you’re well-prepared to complete successfully. By answering safe questions first, you may find a wellspring of confidence you didn’t know was there.
Hopefully, you can transfer this confidence into the rest of the exam, greeting tricky questions with sober-eyed determination.
Take Even More Deep Breaths
Eventually, you will likely land on a question that trips you up. Remember, you aren’t in danger. In the moment, it can be challenging to contextualize a mishap on an exam (telling yourself, “this is just one of several questions,” e.g.). Instead, go back to your breaths.
With just a few deep breaths, you may find that you’ve given yourself the space to recall the answer – or take an educated guess.
For some students, the anxiety doesn’t end when they submit their exams. Instead, a new kind of anxiety rears its head. Rather than the stress leading up to an exam (which is often anticipatory stress, or “panic”), the anxiety some students feel afterwards is residual and reflective. It may involve kicking yourself for not getting answers correct, dreading the exam results, or attaching self-worth to the experience.
The points below emphasize and encapsulate one specific maxim: Be gentle with yourself. Take proactive care of your mental well-being through kindness, positive reflection and forward momentum. Let’s explore how we can achieve this.
Monitor and Mitigate Negative Self-Talk
We talk to ourselves all the time. Mostly, it’s about everyday things like what to eat, who we like and how we’ll catch the next streetcar. But occasionally, that self-talk turns inward – and it isn’t always positive.
Negative self-talk looks different for everyone, but its effects are the same: It dashes our confidence and warps our perception of self-worth. “Why am I so stupid?” “I will never get into university.” “I’m a failure.” Imagine saying these things to the people we love instead of ourselves; it would seem unnecessarily cruel. Basically, we need to be as kind to ourselves as we are with loved ones.
Monitor your self-talk. If it gets nasty, take a mental step back and try to readjust your inner dialogue. Instead of focusing on negative particulars, remind yourself of your essential goodness. “I work hard to achieve my goals.” “I have lots of good stuff to look forward to in life.” “I can learn from this experience and grow.” These are examples of positive self-talk.
Manage Demands, Conditions and Predictions
Alongside negative self-talk sit demands, contingencies and predictions. Demands might include, “I need to get an A on this exam.” Conditions are similar: “If I don’t get an A, I’ll consider it a failure.” And predictions follow closely at hand: “Considering the questions I missed, I probably got a C-plus on the exam.”
These are normal thoughts, but they’re particularly productive. It doesn’t help to make demands, rest your conditional self-worth on an outcome or predict the worst. When faced with the unknown, all we can really do is congratulate ourselves for the attempt.
Focus on Your “Wins”
One way to manage negative self-talk, demands, conditions and predictions is to focus on your wins. What did you do right on the exam? Is there a specific turn of phrase you placed in the essay that makes you proud? Can you believe you recalled how to solve quintic functions in your MHF4U Grade 12 Advanced Functions exam? How did your brain remember so many plot points about Hamlet – that was cool!
These are examples of wins, small successes that paint a rosier portrait of our potential.
While You Wait, Move on to the Next Thing
“Onwards and upwards” might be an excellent motto for those inclined to post-exam anxiety. After all, as we mentioned, dwelling on the experience doesn’t go well sometimes.
Instead of replaying the exam in your head, look forward to your next academic achievements. Brush up on the War of 1812 before starting your CHI4U Canadian History course. Read about Piaget before embarking on your university career in psychology. The educational road ahead will be paved with many more successes and setbacks. Sometimes, the best we can do is keep our eyes pointed forward.
Try Meditative Practices
Lastly, consider meditative practices to mitigate your post-exam anxiety. Studies show that meditation, mindfulness and yoga can help reduce stress by lowering cortisol, upping endorphins and – on the less technical end – allowing the practitioner to “clear away the clutter” in their thinking patterns.
It isn’t a panacea for anxiety (read: a complete solution), but it can help. If you suffer from chronic anxiety or are worried about your anxiety levels, consider reaching out to a professional via your family doctor or a loved one.
Dealing with exam anxiety requires splitting your efforts: learning how to deal with anxiety before exam season, how to deal with exam stress and anxiety in the moment, and how to overcome exam anxiety after the fact. Just remember that exam anxiety in students is common; there are several resources (like this humble article) to coach you through the process, and several people (whether loved ones or professionals) to talk to. Best of luck as you enter exam season!