10 effective tips to get through exam time with minimal stress
From creating the right study environment to practising mindfulness and eating brain-nourishing foods, Tanya Sweeney has the best advice for students revising for those daunting State exams...
The mercury is rising, there’s a grand stretch in the evenings, and to people of a certain age, this only means one thing: exam weather. For around 120,000 Irish schoolchildren, the final dastardly furlong is in sight, resulting in cramming, anxiety, and the thrum of low-level panic creeping in.
It can be a difficult time in the home of an exam-taker for a number of reasons: discipline may be a challenge, while those feeling the pressure are likely to have frayed tempers.
Yet according to the experts, there are ways of making the last few weeks before big exams work in your favour. From maximising memory to maintaining a healthy balance, we’ve created a survival guide for the toughest two weeks of the academic year, for parents and students alike.
1. Pick up the smartphone (within reason)
Aine Devlin, maths/Irish teacher at Celbridge Community School has co-founded the website examrevision.ie with Keith Walsh, and has created a number of online tutorials for several subjects.
"It can be very difficult for some students to look at a page and learn anything from it, which is why we have created these videos," she explains. "In my own classroom, we look through certain apps, and students can see me writing on a virtual whiteboard and then me speaking over it."
If your children are using devices to revise, make sure that they can’t access Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook. Scientists have made a correlation between smartphone use and academic performance, while researchers from the University of Maine have established that the mere presence of a phone on the desk can be a distraction.
2. Take breaks
Sounds counter-intuitive, but spreading revision out, as opposed to cramming, is the best way to commit things to memory. Spreading out your revision sessions on a particular topic (eg. one-hour sessions over 10 days) is more effective than spending the same amount of time in one go (ie. 10 hours in one day). And during sessions, take a breather.
"Usually five minutes every 35 minutes or alternatively 10 minutes every hour," says David Duffy, Education and Research Officer with the Teachers’ Union of Ireland. "Trying to plough through material without a break results in a lack of concentration."
3. Use what revision time you have left wisely
"The main thing when students start sitting down to revision is that they don’t know where to start,”" says Devlin. "Often, they go back to the start, which means they’re often not being specific enough with revision. People also like to go over stuff they understand as it makes them feel better, but the best thing to do is to create lists of the topics they need to work on."
4. Box clever with the exam paper
Forewarned is indeed forearmed, and will help students avoid nasty surprises on the big day. Getting to know the format of the exam paper is as significant as the information needed to pass it.
"Have a general knowledge of the exam paper, and know that marks in exams mean minutes," advises Enda O’Doherty of StudySkillsIreland.com. "Ask yourself, ‘Which questions will I answer? Which are compulsory?’
"For the next few weeks, base your study on exam papers — there’s no point revising five chapters of a textbook and finding that only one will come up on the day."
5. Be careful when taking notes
Simply transcribing the textbook onto a refill pad will not work.
"Make notes, but if you’re taking notes from the book, make sure to put it into your own words, and make sure the bullet points make sense. Some students prefer mind maps or spider diagrams, but they’re not for everyone. It really is up to the individual."
6. Be a supportive parent
Time once was that messing up your exams meant messing up your life. This is wholly unhelpful, and can only exacerbate stress and anxiety.
"As a parent, your job is to hide your anxiety," notes O’Doherty. "Be the rock and the support and say things like, 'I’m so proud of you. Keep going.' Don’t be the one to initiate post-mortems on exam day.
"On a more practical level, drive your child to the exam in loads of time (and have a Plan B), and on exam week, offer them the meals that you know that they like, almost as a small treat."
Adds Duffy: "Some level of exam stress is inevitable and can be useful in spurring you on to perform at your best. However, if you find yourself becoming excessively stressed, eg. losing sleep or becoming upset, then students and parents/guardians should talk. The simple act of a student telling people how they’re feeling at the moment can often go a long way to relieving the pressure."
Mindfulness has been linked with lower levels of stress and anxiety, so little wonder a growing number of Irish schools are introducing it.
"Mindfulness is the practise of being consciously aware in the present moment," explains psychotherapist Carmel Sheridan. "We are not in the present moment usually — we are lost in worries about the past or the future, and we find ourselves on autopilot. With mindfulness, you come back to the present: you notice when the mind is going off, and you bring it back.
"It can also be done within a couple of seconds. Go for a walk and instead of thinking about what’s coming next, or what you’ve just done, it’s helpful instead to be mindful that the walk is happening: to focus on the feeling of your feet touching the ground, to feel the movements in the body. These simple practices recalibrate the mind."
8. Encourage active learning
If a child is immersed in a subject outside of the classroom, they absorb without even realising that they’re working. A trip to an art gallery is a good way to understand art history; watching a French film will encourage students to pick up the correct grammar needed push a pass over the line, while a half hour of TG4 will hopefully make them more comfortable with the cupla focail.
9. Have a good study area
"Study at a desk," advises Duffy. "Studying lying on your bed is unlikely to be productive."
Likewise, amenities like the phone or music will interfere with productivity. Research from Cardiff University proves that reading comprehension can be impaired if lyrical music is being played.
"Listening to music, watching TV and checking your phone whilst studying isn’t helpful," affirms Duffy. "You can do all that on your study break."
10. Be healthy
It’s all too easy for good habits — diet, exercise — to fall by the wayside during busy of stressful times, but getting fresh air every day will oxygenate the brain, leading to increased productivity. Exercise also helps to reduce anxiety and boost self-esteem. Meanwhile, eat a diet rich in good fats (like avocados and oily fish) and vitamins B3, B6 and B12 (like chicken or nuts), all of which aid cognitive function.
"Breakfast during exams is really important," notes O’Doherty. "You don’t want five years of work go out the window because you didn’t think to have something to eat and start to feel faint or unwell in the exam."