How to manage exam stress

Exam anxiety can be overwhelming but where it is controlled it can be a positive, helping to focus concentration and sustain motivation. Lisa Faulkner and Ninna Makrinov, from the University of Warwick’s Skills team, offer some practical advice on how to reduce exam nerves and revise effectively.

Revision – what works?

We would love to be able to say there is a magic trick for exam revision; and there is one… just maybe not the one you would like to hear about. It all comes down to being organised, planning your time well and setting strategies that will help your memory do its work.

For some of us, exams can be perceived as almost a medieval torture practice, and anxiety can hinder what how well we perform on the day. It sometimes helps to understand that is not what they are there for, they are just an efficient way to assess your knowledge and understanding.

Thinking and learning…

As a psychologist, Ninna tends to base her suggestions on the models we have about the way we think (cognition) and learn. “I think understanding a little bit of how cognitive psychologists understand memory can help. It is generally agreed that we ‘hold’ memories in different ways. Most of our memories are stored in what we call long term memory (LTM); a depository of ideas, words, images and emotions. When solving a problem, we use our working memory (WM), holding chunks of information ‘on the top of our head’ (imagine a shopping list, or calculating 54 x 7 in your mind). Our WM has a limited capacity (between 4 and 8 chunks of information). Learning occurs when we process information from our WM, so we are able to store it in and retrieve it from the LTM.” 

Ninna here emphasises the importance of ‘chunks’ and ‘process’, “How do we organise new material so those four chunks have all we have to know for an exam? How do we make bigger chunks (a letter, a word or a subject are all chunks of information)? The answer is processing the information: making sense, relating it to what we already know, using imagery.” 

Fight or flight.

Lisa is a biologist and describes how in stressful situations the body releases cortisol and adrenalin.  “This is a fantastic response when we are faced with physical danger and it shows how well adapted humans were to adverse conditions of the past. This response might not be as useful in an exam situation (can you imagine how running away or destroying the exam paper might look?) and it also clouds our thinking.” Lisa highlights advice from the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin “recognise that under stress you’re not gonna be at your best and you should put systems in place”.

Put your system in place…five top tips for exam revision:

1. Focus your efforts

You don’t need to learn everything: Be realistic. If you have read your course materials, taken effective notes and revised as you go, the time left before exams should be used to refine your understanding and combine your knowledge. If you are reading this now and panicking because you have not done this; think of how you can best use your available time. What should you focus on?

2. Identify the key learning points for your subject

Make sure you read the module description and marking criteria. These are provided by your lecturers to guide you. If they are available, look at past papers to get an idea of the questions you might be asked (they might be available on your intranet; follow this link for the University of Warwick Past exam papers ). Other students might also be able to share their insights, in particular those from other years who have already taken the exams you are preparing for.

3. Make effective notes

Make sure your notes support your revision. In general this means that they provide a structured, summarised approach to your learning. Some key points to take into account for your notes are that they focus on conclusions (not only content), focus on the relationship between materials and are short enough so you don’t spend too much time reading. You might want to try some specific methods, such as the  Cornell Method or Mind Maps  We will not go into detail here, but if you are at Warwick you might want to attend our ‘Taking Notes Effectively’ Skills workshop

4. Any mnemonics?

Mnemonics allow us to create patterns to help us remember. Probably the most commonly used mnemonics is an acronym (taking the first letter of each element; e.g. SMART objectives are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timed). But this is by no means the only way; you can use music, rhymes, visualisation and other methods (this Ted Talk gives a great account of the memory palace Joshua Foer)

5. Teach others

Working in a team can help some of us improve our learning. Teaching others is a great way to demonstrate to yourself that you have understood; it also provides a good opportunity to discover areas that you need to look into further in a safe environment. This is also a good time saving technique: divide the contents you need to study between members of your study group and share your learning.

Stop writing and put down your pen…

Watch this clip featuring Warwick’s Ellie Crouch to prepare for exams in a purposeful, structured and efficient way and learn strategies to help you perform well.

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