Tag Archives: Note Taking

How to Deal with Exam Anxiety

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
  • sweating
  • rapid heart rate
  • nausea
  • 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.

Positive Self-Talk

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.

Be Smart 

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.

Relaxation Techniques

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

Deep breathing:

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.

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  • 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.


Therapist Aid.com (n.d.). Relaxation Techniques. Retrieved from: http://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-worksheet/relaxation-techniques/anxiety/adults. [Accessed: 19 April 2016].

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].

Watson, J. (2015). Avoiding Test Anxiety – Tip Sheet. Retrieved from: https://www.butte.edu/departments/cas/tipsheets/studystrategies/test_anxiety.html. [Accessed: 09 May 2016].

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].



Taking Notes in Lectures: The Why & How Of It All

Taking effective notes in class and writing down verbatim what the lecturer says are two very different things. Proper note taking not only assists with comprehension and retention but transforms you into an active learner.

Note Taking

The style of teaching at college level is very different from what you were exposed to in high school. During your school years, particularly Grades 11 and 12, teachers tend to focus quite narrowly on “textbook learning” and preparing you for your final exams. In college however, lecturers rely more on expanding on what is in the textbook, so as to provide you with a broader and deeper understanding.

This change in style and focus can be disorientating for students who are used to learning the content of a textbook by heart and having little experience in applying what they have learned.

A simple and effective way of improving your understanding and retention is by learning to take effective notes during lectures.

Why the Emphasis on Taking Notes?:

1. Retention and Review

First and foremost, studies show that retention (i.e. remembering new information) decreases at the following rate:


Thus, having good notes to review for exams or for use in assignments is essential.

2. Listen and Learn

Taking notes while in a lecture forces you to:

  • Actually tune in and listen to what is being said.
  • Analyse what is being said – sifting out what is important and should be taken note of, from what is not.
  • Be an active, rather than passive, learner – resulting in you thinking about what you are taking note of and identifying gaps in your understanding.

Note taking is in fact a high level skills involving complex cognitive processes such as: analysing, evaluating, reviewing, writing and synthesizing.

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How to Take Good Notes:

DO’S –
  • Be attentive to the main points and important information i.e. facts, details, examples and explanations that expand on a main point.
  • Keep your notes brief. Take down key words and short sentences.
  • Where possible, use your own words – this helps with retention and comprehension vs. mindlessly writing down  what you hear.
  • Formulas, definitions, terminology and specific facts should be noted down exactly.
  • Write legibly – notes are of no use to you if you cannot decipher what you have written.
  • Create your own system of symbols and abbreviations that you use consistently e.g.


  • Use bullet points and indentations to indicate levels of related information and to distinguish between major and minor points.
  • Use one highlighter or pen colour to indicate new words, terminology.
  • Use a different highlighter or pen colour to highlight words or concepts you are not sure of or need to look up – you can then go back to your notes and add what you find out about the word / concept.
  • Start your notes for each new lecture on a new, clean page, date and number your pages – this will help keep your notes in order.
  • Do review your notes within 24 hours – look for and attend to any words or phrases you cannot make out or don’t understand; fill in key words, gaps, questions you might have; compare your notes to your textbook reading and add to them.

Note Taking

  • DO NOT try to write down every word the lecturer speaks. Be selective, seeking out the main points and information.
  • Do not use tatty, scrap pieces of paper to write your notes on.
  • Do not record a lecture using your cell phone voice recorder, in place of taking notes. By actively deciding what to take note of and the physical action of writing the information down, you are processing, analysing and comprehending the information. In addition to this, you can quickly read your notes later for points or facts you need or in preparation for a class vs. having to troll through the entire voice recording and all the added, unnecessary “bumpf” the lecturer also spoke about on that day, in search for a single phrase or point. Don’t be tempted. Don’t be that guy / girl.

How to Pick Up on What is Important?

The following is not a hard and fast rule…BUT…lecturers often give clues as to what is important and should be taken note of, the trick is to look (and listen) for the verbal and non-verbal cues (and blatant HINTS) given throughout the lecture:

  • If it’s been written down on the whiteboard…it is most likely important and should be noted.
  • If it is in bold or CAPS or BOTH in the lecture notes or PowerPoint notes…it is most likely important and should be noted.
  • Repetition. They aren’t repeating the same point over and over for their health…get the HINT.
  • Emphasis. This can be picked up in two ways: a) tone of voice and gestures used when discussing a particular topic / concept / theme e.g. “There are TWO THEORIES on the …”; b) the amount of time a lecturer spends on a particular point or topic, the number of examples they use in order to ensure that the idea is clearly understood.
  • Reviews given at the beginning of a class (highlighting important points or topics from the previous lesson) and summaries given at the end of a class.


Dietsche, V.K. (2000). Taking Notes: 5 College Success Tips. Retrieved from:  http://jerz.setonhill.edu/writing/academic1/taking-notes-5-college-success-tips/ [Accessed on: 07 July 2016]

Taking Lecture Notes. (2001). Retrieved from:  http://www.dartmouth.edu/~acskills/success/notes.html [Accessed on: 07 July 2016].

Academic Skills: Methods of Taking Notes. (n.d.) Retrieved from:  http://www.dartmouth.edu/~acskills/docs/notetaking.pdf [Accessed on: 07 July 2016]