Managing Exam Stress

It's that time of year again when the country's teenagers prepare to sit their GCSEs and A Level exams and their stress levels begin to sky-rocket. During my career as a teacher, I helped to guide hundreds of young adults through this challenging time. Personally - and somewhat perversely - I enjoy a good exam. I welcome the challenge.This doesn't mean to say that they don't make me nervous; they do! And so they should: they are, after all, designed to be a measurement of quality. That said, I strongly believe that there are many different ways to measure a person's skill and ability. Written exams aren't the be all and end all. My brother and I are a case in point: he's extremely practical and is an absolute genius when it comes to electronics, electricity and engineering; he's naturally talented and absorbs knowledge like a sponge. Basically, he's McGyver without the mullet. But writing essays is NOT his thing AT ALL. Diagnosed as a 'clumsy child' in the 80s [in modern parlance: dyspraxic], his writing is a mix of capitals and lower case letters. Plus, he just doesn't see the point in exams or 'The System'. Then there's me - the complete opposite; I need to see, listen, try it out, repeat and ask questions before I understand things. I am a slow learner and really have to spend time on things to absorb knowledge. I can't remember facts or figures, but, boy, am I shit hot in the exam hall. I can analyse a poem, novel or play until the cows come home. The moral of the story here is that everyone is different and everyone is intellegent and competent, but we have to deal with the reality of how society has chosen to measure our strengths in standardised exams. So, what's my advice to you if you're taking exams this summer and want to keep your stress levels well within safe limits? Keep reading for my top 10 tips.


1. Exam results are just one thing you will achieve in your life: remember that you are doing standardised tests. You have other strengths, skills and abilities that cannot be measured by an exam. Whilst the letters you get on your certificate at the end of it all can be a passport onto other courses or into a job, there are a hell of a lot of other pathways you could take to be who you want to be.


2. Find the fun in it: enjoyment and curiosity are great motivators: remind yourself of why you chose the subject you are being examined in and go into the exam hall feeling curious about what the questions might be. Curiosity puts you in contol whilst fear will take control from you. Welcome the invitation exams bring to show your interest and enthusiasm for the subject.


3. Only one opinion matters: the only person you are in competition with when it comes to exams is yourself, so compare yourself only to yourself. You are part of your own learning journey and the challenges you face will be completely different to the challenges someome else faces. I got a C for maths at GCSE and I was damned proud of that, since I had to have 'special' lessons in middle school for maths: that C represented a lot of hard work. I got an A for Literature at A level ... and I was also proud of that because I attended special needs lessons in middle school for English, too. Remember your own journey and measure the outcome based on the process you've been through: you're the only person who knows the story behind your grades.


4. Your memory doesn't like being force fed: forcing yourself to sit for hours on end revising is counter-productive. Your mind will just go blank on you if you try to stuff it with months of information in the space of four weeks. Revision should start early to ensure you can consolidate your learning - it should really start after each lesson you do so that you are consolidating your understanding as you go. Revision should also be done little and often: 45minutes at a time, or the length of a practice timed essay.




5. Work to your rhythm: figure out your best working times during the day and do revision only in those slots. Plan to have some downtime or do exercise in the rest. There's absolutely NO value in forcing yourself to sit for 6 hours a day revising. Your body is a machine and machines need maintaining if they are to run properly. Personally, I work best in the early morning through to early afternoon, between 7am and 1pm. Between 2pm and 7pm, I find it hard to stay still and focus on paperwork, so that's when I leave the house to do something practical. I'm back to being focused between 7pm and 8.30pm.


6. Be an active learner: Don't just sit memorising facts using flash cards. The best way to learn is to DO and to put the information into context. I'm a huge fan of 'spoken essays'. With my students and tutees for Literature, I get them to mind map their main points in answer to a question, write out the quotations they want to use, then get them to 'speak' the essay to me. The genius in this revision technique is that they are having to put the knowledge they have learnt into a specific context AND they get to practice how to express their ideas about those points - after all, knowing the facts is one thing, but being able to express them coherently is another. Other ways you could revise actively are to 'teach' someone else something - teach your mum about the presentation of death in Hamlet, or teach the cat how to work out the area of a triangle.


7. Ready, steady, GO! a frustrating fact about exams is that they don't just test your knowledge, they test your knowledge against the clock. This isn't fair, but it's a fact and you need to build thinking and writing at speed into your revision. Timed essays are essential. Writing regular timed essays as part of your revision regime will mean that writing at the correct pace will become second nature to you.


8. Bedtime re-reading: revision will usually involve re-reading information in textbooks, your class notes or your set texts. The best time to do some re-reading is before bed - don't ask me exactly why, but you will remember more of what you read that way. Science says so and so does my own experience, so you'll just have to trust us on this!


9. Fill up your senses: teaching to the different 'learning styles' of our students was very much a trend back in the early 2000s, but it's one I have great respect for, as it explains why my brother and I are so different when it comes to the way we process information. I know I'm extremely visual and kinesthetic - I recall pretty much everything about what I see and I always remember things I physically do, but I cannot recall what people say to me and find it difficult to follow instructions given aurally. You'll know which senses stimulate your memory the most, so bring that into your revision. If, unlike me, you recall best what you hear, then use your mobile phone to record yourself explaining a theory or speaking out loud an essay you've planned, then play it back and assess it against the exam criteria. If you're visual, you'll benefit from colour-coding information and linking key ideas to pictures or symbols.


10. Accept the stress: stress is a natural and normal part of being a human being when we are in situations that feel threatening. In exam situations, of course you're going to feel nervous and anxious - and, frankly, thank goodness you do, because those nerves will give you the edge you need to get through the paper. However, I understand that for some, they may experience a 'freeze' or 'flee' reaction rather than a 'fight' one, which isn't quite as useful. In this instance, use grounding techniques to reduce the stress to a more helpful level.

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