Twelve ways to get your mind in shape for the big exams
Experts offer their tips to Kim Bielenberg on how to cope with the Junior and Leaving Certs
The Junior and Leaving Cert exams are just three weeks away. Already in households across the country there are wild mood swings, sleepless nights and nervous biting of finger nails over poetry revision and maths formulae – and that is just the parents.
Students still have a chance to brush up on their exam technique, and for many it is about getting themselves in the right psychological frame of mind.
1. FOCUS ON THE TASK, NOT ON YOURSELF
Michael Hogan, Psychologist at NUI Galway, says students perform better when they focus on the task rather than themselves.
"Research suggests that when people are task-focused they are happier and perform better. Focus on what you are doing – drawing out your timetable, arranging your books on the desk, the flow of ideas in your history textbook, your summary note of the historical facts, the interesting step in the mathematical equation, the clever solution to the physics problem.
"Much anxiety and worry comes from not being task-focused, but rather focusing on yourself."
2. STRUCTURE YOUR STUDY WITH A TIMETABLE
Cillian Fahy of onlinegrinds.ie, who scored seven straight As in the Leaving Cert, says: "A timetable allows you to take a bit of the pressure off. You know that if you keep working hard and following the right path then you'll get the work done. The very act of creating the timetable makes you think critically about your study."
Avoid pet subjects. As the exams get closer, pressurised students can sometimes rely too heavily on their favourites Allocate a little extra time to those you find most difficult.
Says Cillian: "You should use your mocks as a guide to the subjects that need more attention."
3. PACE YOURSELF
Psychologist Michael Hogan says students should keep in mind that exams are more like a marathon race and less like a sprint. He says: "We may be able run at speed for a short burst, but can we maintain a fast and steady pace for the long run?''
It is all too easy to get very worked up about the early exams, and stay up all night cramming, and then become indifferent to the later papers.
4. READ THE EXAMINER'S MIND
A1 students look carefully at the marking schemes given out to those correcting exams in previous years. These are publicly available at examinations.ie, and offer an insight into what examiners are looking for.
Dermot Lucey, author of the revision guide Less Stress More Success for history, says students should keep exam questions from previous papers in mind when they are revising.
"When you are revising topics, look at all the exam questions that have come up on that topic.
"For example, if I was studying Hitler in history, I would list all questions about him. It helps you to look at the topic from the right angles.''
Practise answering questions in the time scale you will have in an exam.
Familiarise yourself with the layout of every paper in advance. Work out how many questions you will have to complete, marks for each question, and how long you should spend on each answer.
5. SPICE IT UP
You are in control of what you study so make it as interesting for yourself as possible. Alternate your subjects regularly. Study the subjects you find more difficult earlier in the day when you are not quite as tired.
If you have a mental block about something or you are tiring, switch to another subject to refresh your mind.
Cillian Fahy advises students try to find original and high quality material from respected sources on the internet to develop a better understanding of topics.
Avoid stale text book repetitions that are unlikely to impress an examiner.
6. STORE INFORMATION IN YOUR HEAD
Don't leave all the learning until the last minute. Your notes may be great but you'll only get marks for what's actually in your head.
"At some point you'll have to make sure you are actually learning rather than writing notes," says Cillian Fahy
"Spend at least 40 minutes a night just working on learning things off."
7. EXPERIMENT WITH DIFFERENT STUDY STYLES
The most common is simply writing out page after page. However, this is time consuming and only ideal if you need to learn something word-for-word.
You can use images, pictures and mindmaps to help you remember things.
Some students also learn by speaking aloud or listening to themselves recorded.
8. TAKE BREAKS AND SLEEP YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS
Research published in 1998 showed that pupils who got lower grades went to sleep on average 40 minutes later than top exam performers.
It is important to take regular breaks while revising. Stop working at least every few hours. A brisk walk will help you to relax and concentrate. Exercise also helps students to sleep during a stressful time.
Psychologist Michael Hogan says: "Research suggests that physical activity – and aerobic activity in particular – has a positive effect on mood. Rather than pushing beyond the fatigue barrier while studying at your desk at home take intelligent breaks – go out for a jog, a cycle, or a walk."
9. CHECK SUPPLIES AND TIMETABLES
Pupils can become flustered by minor details and caught out by practicalities, such as a battery not working on a calculator, or a missing ruler. Check all stationery and equipment a few days beforehand. Check the exam timetable rigorously – before the exam.
10. DON'T PANIC IN THE EXAM HALL
Read the entire paper, and decide which questions to answer.
Sometimes, in the initial panic, students think they can't answer anything.
Take a deep breath and read the paper again. You will spot keywords that you recognise. Circle these immediately to boost confidence.
Draw up a time plan for your answers and stick to it. Make sure your answer is relevant to the question and give yourself enough time to revise your answer.
11. ANSWER ALL QUESTIONS AND DON'T LEAVE EARLY
Don't leave any questions unanswered. If you are short of time, use note form.
Don't leave the exam hall early. If you have time at the end, go over your work, and add information, if necessary.
12. REWARD YOURSELF FOR HARD WORK
Study is tough, so remember to offer yourself incentives.
"I'm a big man for chocolate, and a big man as a result of chocolate too," says Cillian Fahy.
But you can also be good to yourself by listening to music, chatting to your mates, or even watching England getting beaten in the World Cup.