Exam anxiety is a real and legitimate problem that can affect a person’s academic performance. There are however certain skills you can learn to assist with managing exam anxiety.
There are numerous causes for exam anxiety:
- Poor study skills – Some students do not know how to effectively study for an exam, as a result they feel under prepared and so experience anxiety. Whilst others think they know how to study but are in fact using inadequate methods.
- Negative self-talk – These are often students who have done badly in previous exams or who dislike sitting for exams and so convince themselves that they will do poorly. The self-doubt makes it difficult for them to concentrate before and even during the exam.
- The perfectionist – For some students anything less than a distinction is deemed a failure, thus placing exaggerated and unnecessary pressure on themselves.
Physical symptoms include –
- tense muscles
- rapid heart rate
- rapid or shallow breathing
- feeling faint
Cognitive symptoms include:
- inability to remember simple things
- illogical thinking
- mental blocks
In order to deal with exam anxiety one needs to address both the physical and cognitive aspects of the anxiety. Certain techniques are specifically recommended for the relief of exam anxiety, with some requiring practice and persistence.
Our thoughts have the ability to create positive or negative feelings about ourselves and situations. Anxiety is brought on by a person’s thoughts or expectations of how an event or experience is likely to turn out. A solution for dealing with this form of doubt is referred to as cognitive restructuring – what this process does is get the individual to examine their irrational, negative self-talk and replace it with positive self-talk.
If you repeatedly tell yourself that you are not going to do well in an exam, your emotions will mirror this message resulting in feelings of anxiety because the message you are repeating to yourself is negative and self-defeating.
Of course just telling yourself that you are ready for an exam, but you haven’t opened a book, is not going to work. You need to have put the effort and time in so as to reinforce your positive self-talk; so that the message is true and you can believe in it.
1. Be realistic about the amount of time you have.
It is easy to misjudge how much time you actually have available for studying or completing assignments. One way of finding out where you are wasting time or could be using your time more productively is by creating a master schedule:
You literally map out every hour of every day (weekends included) and create a “big picture” of how you spend your time. You will then be able to see what time you have available for studying / working on assignments, where you are maybe wasting time and, where you could perhaps get more time from during particularly busy periods.
2. Pay attention in lectures
You don’t realise it but your lecturers drop hints and clues throughout their lectures about what is important and may be coming up in the next exam or assignment – if you pay close enough attention you will notice them:
- writing notes / keywords on the whiteboard
- repeating something over and over in a lesson, or over a period of time
- literally saying the words: “This is important”
- their tone of voice or gestures when address a particular concept or topic
- assigning specific readings or textbook chapters
3. Take notes during lectures…and use them
Taking notes during lectures means you are actively engaging and thinking about what is being presented. By re-writing the notes after the class you will not only be reinforcing the information but you will also be able to organise it in an understandable manner; highlighting keywords or concepts that the lecturer paid special attention to.
4. Really study
Studying is not about reading your textbook and notes over and over again in the hopes that the information will magically transport itself to your memory, so that you can regurgitate it into your answer book during the exam.
Studying means knowing and understanding concepts and theories and how they relate and interact. At college level you will very seldom (if ever) be expected to merely memorise and regurgitate information; instead you are required to analyse, apply and organise the information you have learned into a response that adequately addresses the question that is asked.
The use of relaxation techniques is often recommended for the treatment of anxiety. There are a variety of techniques that can be used, we will be looking at two particular exercises:
- Deep breathing
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation
When you are relaxed you tend to take longer and deeper breaths versus when you are anxious your breathing becomes shallow and rapid. Deep breathing exercises reverses this, sending a message to your brain telling it to calm the body.
Deep breathing is a technique which becomes more effective with practice as your body will learn to read the signs that it needs to relax and calm down.
- You can be sitting or standing, just make sure you are relaxed (no tensed muscles) before you begin.
- Make sure your hands are relaxed, your knees are soft, and your shoulders and jaw are relaxed.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose – counting in your head for five beats as you breathe in, keep your shoulders down and allow your stomach to expand as you breathe in.
- Hold your breath for 5 – 10 beats – you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable but you should be holding your breath for a little longer than you normally would.
- Breathe out slowly and smoothly for 5 – 10 beats.
- Repeat until you feel calm.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation:
When a person is stressed or anxious they tend to tense their muscles resulting in feelings of stiffness and sometimes even pain in the back, shoulders and / or neck. Progressive muscle relaxation teaches you how to become aware of where you store your tension and to release it.
- Find a quiet, private room.
- Lie down on your back, making sure you are comfortable. You may want to put a pillow behind your head. Take your shoes off and make sure you are wearing comfortable, loose fitting clothes.
- You are now going to intentionally tense each of your muscle groups, and then relax them, starting with your feet and working your way up the body.
- Tense the muscles in your toes – curl them into your foot – take note of how this feels – hold the position for 5 seconds.
- Relax your toes – notice how they feel different in the relaxed state.
- Tense the muscles in your calves – hold it for 5 seconds – notice the feeling of tension in your leg.
- Relax your calves – notice how the feeling of relaxation differs
- Tense your knees – pull the knee caps upwards – hold the pose for 5 seconds – notice the feeling of tension in your knees.
- Relax the knees – notice the feeling of relaxation.
- Repeat the pattern of tensing and releasing working upwards through your body: thighs, buttocks, pelvic floor, stomach, fingers, hands, forearms, upper arms, shoulders, neck, face.
- No other muscle group should be tensed when focusing on a particular area.
- Make sure that the room you are in is quiet and comfortable, so that you can concentrate on the feeling of tension and relaxation without any disturbances.
- You may feel sleepy after (or you may even fall asleep during) this exercise.
The breathing and relaxation techniques provided in this post are for informational purposes only. Please consult your family doctor before beginning any new exercise or relaxation programme. This is particularly important if you have any pre-existing health conditions.
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University of Alabama. (n.d.). Dealing with Test Anxiety. Retrieved from: http://www.ctl.ua.edu/CTLStudyAids/StudySkillsFlyers/TestPreparation/testanxiety.htm. [Accessed: 09 May 2016].
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Weimer, M. (2016). Test Anxiety: Causes and Remedies. Retrieved from: http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/test-anxiety-causes-and-remedies/ . [Accessed: 09 May 2016].
With the Summative Assessment period upon us you may be interested to know that your brain needs some TLC in order to help get you through the next few weeks.
This may come as a shock to many but your brain plays a very important role in how productive and successful you are when studying and working on assignments. The internal environment of your brain plays a vital role in learning; meaning that you can study all day and all night but if you don’t look after your brain, it will all be for nothing.
A healthy brain can lead to improved:
- memory and retention
- mental performance
What your brain needs to survive and thrive are often the exact same things you tend to neglect when preparing for exams or working flat out on a deadline.
The brain is made up of:
- neurons – they process and transmit information
To fuel the learning functions of your neurons, you need to feed your brain:
- good fats
- complex carbohydrates
By nourishing your brain with the correct food and adequate water, you are providing your neurons with a healthy environment in which to function. However, by feeding your brain the incorrect foods and dehydrating it you are in fact starving your neurons of the energy they need to function, grow and regenerate. The next time you feel foggy, tired or unable to concentrate take a moment to think about what you have (or haven’t) eaten in the past few hours…
Your brain is largely made up of fatty membranes, making up approximately 60% of solid brain matter. As such, fats provide your brain with energy, but we’re talking good fats here namely, Omega 3 and 6 oils which can be derived from:
- Fatty fish, such as: sardines, tuna, pilchards and salmon
- Nuts, such as: walnuts, brazil nuts, macadamia
- Seeds, such as: sunflower seeds, flax seeds
- Dark leafy greens, such as: spinach, kale, broccoli
Bad fats are literally like sludge in the brain’s circulatory system; they effect the flow of oxygen to the brain, as well as the flow of toxins and waste out of the brain.
Bad fats include:
- Processed foods, such as: cakes, biscuits, crisps, processed meats (e.g. polony) and processed cheese (e.g. cheese slices)
- Deep fried foods, such as: chicken (e.g. KFC), chips etc.
Protein provides your brain with amino acids, the building block for neurons. Good proteins include:
- Lean meat – baked not fried (e.g. pork and ostrich)
- Fish – baked not fried (e.g. salmon, tuna, pilchards)
- Yoghurt – plain, unsweetened and not flavoured
- Nuts – raw not roasted or flavoured
- Eggs – poached or boiled not fried
Carbohydrates (including sugar) are an energy source for your brain. However, excessive consumption of sugar results in bursts of energy, followed by slumps including fidgeting, headaches, lack of concentration and drowsiness. The key is to provide your brain with the right type of carbohydrates i.e. good / complex carbohydrates, such as:
- Brown rice
- Wholewheat bread
- Wholewheat pasta
You should avoid consuming bad / simple carbohydrates, such as:
- Refined sugar (white sugar)
- White bread
- White pasta
- White rice
Micro-nutrients are required in small amounts but are essential to a healthy brain; they include:
- Vitamin B – for focus and concentration
- Zinc – for the formation of memories
- Calcium – to help cleanse the brain of toxins and waste
Micro-nutrients can be found in:
- Fresh fruit and vegetables
- Plain milk
- Plain yoghurt
You should avoid consuming anything that includes artificial flavourants or colouring.
Dehydration results in:
- Reduced cognitive abilities
- Poor concentration
- and may even damage your brain
We spend a 1/3 of our lives sleeping, it is crucial to our health and mental well being. During sleep your brain is nearly as active as it is when you are awake – from the day you are born to the day you die, your brain is active and working. So what is it so busy doing?
During sleep the brain processes complex stimuli and information is has received during the waking hours; it uses this information to make decisions when you are awake.
While you are sleeping your brain forms and saves new memories and incorporates them with old memories, this is why sleep is so important for learning. By sleeping before you study, you are helping the brain prepare for the intake of new information. By sleeping after you have studied, you are helping the brain save the new information. If you deprive your brain of sleep, your ability to learn new information drops by 40%.
Sleep is also known to boost creativity – the mind in its unconscious, “resting” state makes new connections that it may not be able to make during its waking state.
Sleep gives the brain a chance to do housekeeping – while you are asleep the brain flushes out toxins that build up when you are awake. It also allows the brain to convert short-term memories into long term memories .
Until you reach your early to mid-20s you need approximately 9 hours of sleep per night in order to function optimally the next day. A tired person’s brain works harder and accomplishes less thus adding to the argument that “pulling an all-nighter” is in fact a waste of time and sleep.
Physical activity boosts blood and oxygen flow through the brain resulting in your neurons being stimulated and thus able to connect with one another better. Exercise is like fertilizer for the brain, in that improved blood and oxygen flow results in improved:
In addition to this, exercise improves your mood and quality of sleep; it also reduces stress and anxiety – all problems that cause or contribute to learning and concentration problems.
Aim for approximately one hour of moderate intensity exercise twice per week, for example: brisk walking or swimming
So, what’s the moral of the story?
Eat right. Get enough sleep. Get some exercise.
Look after your brain.
Mastin, L. (2013). Why do we sleep? Memory Processing and Learning. Retrieved from: http://www.howsleepworks.com/why_memory.html . [Accessed: 22 September 2015].
Norman, P. (2014). Feeding the Brain for Academic Success: How Nutrition and Hydration Boost Learning. Retrieved from: http://teacherweb.com/NY/NorthRose-WolcottMiddleSchool/HealthEducation/Academics-and-Nutrition-Article-Assignment.doc . [Accessed: 22 September 2015].
With Summative Assessment season upon us, it’s important to remember to keep things balanced and to take regular breaks.
It may sound counter-intuitive when you have submission dates piling up and exams to study for, but studies show that when we work / study for hours on end on the same task, with no breaks, our brain slowly starts to switch off and no longer registers what we are doing. Taking regular breaks from studying, or working on an assignment, allows your mind to refocus and improves attention. The trick however, lies in selecting the correct type of activity for your study / work break so that you return to your task focused and refreshed.
How Long Should You Be Studying / Working For?
The general consensus appears to be:
- Study / work for 50 – 90 minutes with a 10 minute break in between sessions.
- And to take a slightly longer break after every 2 to 3 sessions.
“Good” Study / Work Breaks
Different activities work for different people. The point is to decide on an activity that will help refresh you and that makes the transition back to work / studying easy. Also, a “good” break is one that isn’t able to morph into a procrastination tactic.
The simplest way to manage your breaks (and even your study / work sessions) is by setting a timer – when the timer goes, the break is over.
Good, reinvigorating breaks include:
- Moving away from the screen / book / desk – sitting in the same position for hours on end is no good for you, especially if you are hunched up with tension and anxious about what you are working on. Get up and stretch, move around, get your blood flowing and your eyes moving and focusing on different things. Even better, go for a 10 minute walk outside – the fresh air will help clear your mind and re-energize you for your next session.
- Chitter-chatter – you’ve been “in the zone” for the past 50 – 90 minutes, phone a friend or find someone to have a quick (emphasis on “quick“) chat with. It will help you change your focus and feel connected again.
- Dance, draw, doodle – do something creative and fun for 10 minutes. Dancing can boost your energy and lift your mood. Colouring in (yes, with crayons or pencils) is a wonderfully relaxing way to clear your mind and get your focus back.
- Eat – whether it’s a quick snack (during your 10 minute break) or a light lunch (during your 30 minute break), the low efficiency activity of putting together a light and healthy snack or meal not only allows your mind to focus on something else, but refuels your body and improves your mindset.
What Not to Do
Just like the right type of break can energize you, the wrong type of break can result in unplanned detours and distractions that make it hard to get back to work and full focus.
Things to avoid include:
- TV / Computer Games / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Snapchat / WhatsApp / E-mail – Rule of thumb: if it has a screen, avoid it. None of these activities boost productivity or focus; what they do is leave you feeling more tired, wound up and distracted than before. Unless you are done studying or working for the day, or self-discipline is your secret super power, don’t use any of these as your downtime break activity.
- Catch some Zzzzz’s – Taking a nap can actually be counter-productive to your work / study schedule; more often than not it leaves you feeling more tired and less inclined to want to get back to work. Instead, aim for a solid 8 – 9 hours uninterrupted sleep a night and if you absolutely have to take a nap during the day, ensure that it is not longer than 20 minutes.
- Quick fix – A take-away pizza (junk food) and super sized energy drink (caffeine) may make for a quick meal break and energy boost, but that is exactly what they are…quick. Neither offer sustained energy or benefit, instead resulting in your blood sugar spiking and then crashing, leaving you feeling flat and tired.
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