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Managing Exam Stress

Test Anxiety

Cramming! Sound Familiar?

Sometimes even with the best plans and the most perfectly crafted study schedule, there will be times where you discover you have to cram too much studying into too little time. 

Here are some helpful hints on how to make the most out of this less than perfect situation:

Prioritize - Pick the most important points and learn them well. Use your study time to learn or review areas you don't feel comfortable with, instead repeating the material you know by heart.

Make a Plan - Chose what you want to study and how much time to devote to each section, make sure you are realistic and use your strengths. If possible, leave extra buffer time for the unexpected.

Use Visuals - Condense the material you’ve chosen to learn into mind maps or cue cards with effective visuals such as colours and images.  Practice by redrawing testing yourself on the material.

Recite, Recite, Recite - No time to move info into long-term memory so repetitive recitation is your new best friend.  Reciting will ‘burn’ the material into your short-term memory. Try rhymes or songs!

Relax - Cramming stores information into short-term memory.  If you experience anxiety during the exam you may forget what you have learned since distractions can easily disrupt recall.  Use relaxation techniques to reduce anxiety before and during the exam.  Put the exam into perspective; exams measure the information you understand - they do not measure you as a person or your intelligence.

Be Kind to your Mind -Try to stay in the moment and not worry about ‘what might have been’.  Remind yourself that you are HUMAN and that you will learn from this experience and avoid cramming in the future.

Working with Test Anxiety

Students often place a lot of pressure on their test performance. Remember that exams measure what you can demonstrate about your learning thus far in a course of study, not your worth as a person.

Here's how to work with your test anxiety:

Reassure Yourself - Know that you know what you know. Much of exam anxiety comes from a fear of poor performance. If you can test yourself adequately prior to an exam and go in with the knowledge that you do know your stuff, you might find your anxiety diminished.

Know your Limit - Some anxiety is normal in an exam situation. In fact, some would say that to a degree, anxiety is facilitative of sharp concentration and alertness. When anxiety begins to impede your ability to perform to your ability, then it may be time to seek further help with it. If you find your anxiety to be extreme and accompanied by headaches, nausea, feelings of despair, shaking and trembling, or blanking out, then it might be worth looking into services for reducing stress and anxiety at your campus Counselling Centre.

Create a Study Schedule - Break-down studying into small and manageable tasks, and spread study sessions out over a long period of time. Be realistic with your timeline and capacity to absorb all the information you need.

Take a Deep Breath - Try to focus on the task at hand. That is, focus on the activities of studying for and responding to questions on the exam rather than on potential negative consequences. Catastrophizing - ie., focusing on grim forecasts of future jobs, lifestyle and so on, are more likely to raise anxiety than to help you control it.

Re-Frame Negative Self-Talk -Try to eliminate negative self statements such as "I'm going to fail this exam for sure because I'm such a big dummy." This negative thinking may limit our ability to perform to standard on an exam. Replacing negative statements with genuine positive statements like "I'm studying hard and I did passably well during the term, I should do similarly well on this exam." may help curb anxiety and bolster your sense of confidence.

Reducing Anxiety in the Exam Room

Some students feel anxious only during the exam or test. Some ways of reducing anxiety during the test follow:

Create a Plan - Scan through the whole exam to discover which questions you are able to do with relative ease and plan to do these first. The result is likely to be a little more confidence and the comfort of knowing that there are no easy marks that you missed on the exam.

Weigh the Questions - Examine the marking scheme of the test or exam and plan to divide your time evenly among the available marks of the exam; e.g., spend more time on sections worth more of the exam.

Set Timed-Goals - While you may not stay strictly with this limit, it is worthwhile to know how many minutes you should spend per question or section of the exam. Following this guideline gives you a sense of progress and feedback about how you are doing.

Pause - Some students even find it helpful to set mini-breaks at specified points during the exam during which they close their eyes, relax their hands and do deep breathing exercises. Even thirty seconds can help bring down your symptoms of stress if you use one of the various relaxation strategies.

At all times try to focus on the process of answering the question rather than on the end result.

Additional Resources

ResourceDescription
Study Task Breakdown for Exams (pdf)A useful tool to help you create a plan for exam studying.
Talk Back to Academic Anxiety! (pdf)Learn about academic anxiety and the practices to reduce anxiety.
15-Second Breathing Exercise (pdf)A quick activity to help regulate your breathing, reduce anxiety and bring back calmness.
Stress Relief Exercise (video, 16 minutes)Progressive relaxation training with a mindfulness counselor.
Mental Health Resource SheetStudent Counselling, Health & Well-being
Exam PrepLearning Skills Workshop
Managing Academic Stress Learning Skills Workshop