"It would be weirder to have zero nerves and be totally relaxed."
Dr. Richard Keegan, Assistant Professor in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Canberra, wants you to know "some degree of tension or anxiety is natural and necessary" leading up to exams.
In fact, that tension can be used to help you study and even improve your performance.
We caught up with Richard for some step-by-step tips on how to identify and handle study stresses.
Step 1: Come back to reality. Don’t needlessly freak out.
"The first thing to do [when stressed] is pause and reflect on what’s being asked of you," Richard says.
"That’s probably a step most people miss out, because people assume whatever emotion we feel must be real and genuine, and actually, sometimes, the emotions we feel can be a runaway train."
Richard recommends you begin by thinking back on what you’ve covered over the school year—or semester—and how you’ve done during previous tasks and assignments.
"You’re reassuring yourself that you have done relevant, meaningful, purposeful work along the way [which] can help alleviate that initial stress," he says.
Step 2: Talk it out. You might know more than you realise.
"If you want to test yourself in an informal way, you can try and talk through some of the things you’ve learned with parents or friends or people who may not even know what you’re supposed to be doing," Richard says.
"So, they won’t be judging you in relation to the criteria. You’re just getting a sense of, ‘You know what? I actually have learned something here. I’m saying things now I couldn’t have said three or four months ago.’"
He also recommends creating mock exams with fellow students who do know the subject matter.
"[It’s] an incredibly powerful strategy, to get into the mind of an examiner and think, what would they look for? What’s a reasonable question to ask people that’s not too hard, too easy?"
Step 3: Start doing the work.
"[You] have to have done some of the legwork."
By that, he means the actual act of studying can help alleviate the stress of studying. Make sense?
"Afterwards, you find, ‘Oh, I actually remembered some of that stuff; it wasn’t just meaningless facts, some of it actually went in’."
Richard also encourages students to pat themselves on the back when their study is going well.
"[It’s] borderline cruelty to the self [otherwise], because you have done meaningful work; you’re further along than yesterday," he says.
"That anxiety… can have knock on effects in terms of undermining your sleep [and] just generally making you more tired."
You may even start to associate negative emotions with revision, and that’s not going to be very helpful.
Step 4: Getting stuff wrong helps you identify knowledge gaps.
"Sometimes you can do a bunch of revision and realise, ‘Right, I’ve got some extra work to do here’," Richard says.
"That’s a meaningful, important discovery, but it can make someone feel bad, so they end up shying away from the next day’s revision.
"No one likes having those things exposed."
However, that’s why it’s so important to push past the ego-bruising and study through self-doubt.
"Without knowing what’s missing, how do you know where to start building?" he asks.
"That is absolutely the nature of how knowledge is built and constructed… You spend a lot of time groping around, not knowing what it is. And then suddenly something makes sense, and you get a little minor reward."
Step 5: Stick with it!
"The best of the best, the PhDs and professors, have basically just got the hang of being slightly out of their depth," Richard laughs.
"Some of the learning takes a while to connect.
"It’s worth putting the effort in and you have to have the faith that the effort will pay off. Even if that weren’t true, you’d still have more fun and more enjoyment and more persistence if you believe that."
Step 6: If your ‘exam anxiety’ is something deeper, seek more help.
Richard acknowledges some stress might mask a deeper anxiety; for that, you may need to seek additional help.
"If that anxiety or unhappiness or whatever it might be is permeating every aspect of your life—so it’s not just school or sport, it’s everywhere you go and its preventing you from functioning—then we’re in the position where it’s worth seeking help," he says.
This is especially true for anyone who might want to get an extension or some assistance.
"It’s good to talk to your tutors, but often, I find, they’re restrained in what they can do until you’re actually able to get something concrete from counselling or a medical GP or something," Richard says.
"That ‘note’ opens up all manner of options, in terms of extensions, in terms of taking you into a different room to do the exam separately; it really depends on the specific nature of your experience and your anxiety, but the best way around it is to seek formal help."
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