Beating Exam Stress: Doing better in Semester 2

Beating Exam Stress: Doing better in Semester 2

Semester 2 starts this week. Silly season, its sometimes called. The pain of last semester’s exams is far behind you and there are ages before you have to think about exams again. Unfortunately, this reduces the motivation to be proactive about preparing for exams, leading to final exam stress.

Research suggests that university students undergoing final exams and report feeling stressed have a lower functioning immune system than those undergoing mid-year exams. As any student knows, exams are an unavoidable part of studying, and probably so is stress.

Stress impacts our minds and bodies. From the automatic response of an increased heart rate, sweaty palms and shaking to an avoidance of a stressful events or negative self talk.

So what can we do about lowering stress? Kelly McGonigal suggests that stress in and of itself is not bad, but thinking it’s bad makes it bad. She says that changing how we perceive stress critical to beating its negative consequences. After all, it is an evolutionary process that increases our alertness, oxygen and readies us for action.


Start now. In order to excel during exams, you obviously need to learn the course content. Psychological theory suggests that in order to move information into long term memory, we need to learn the material slowly over time then revise closer to the deadline. This ensures optimal learning for better retention. Basically cramming on its own is not going to get you there. And if you are stressed while cramming, the task becomes even more futile. Life can get in the way of study and it is easy to let study fall into the background, however keeping up with the coursework is essential to minimising exam stress. It is easier to keep a fire burning then to start it.

Set outcome goals. Often long term goals like getting qualified in your area of expertise or receive grades you are happy with is too far off to motivate you to crack open your books today. What short term goals can be set and achieved instead? They might involve finishing your assigned reading for that week or setting up a study group. Research indicates that social support plays a vital role in lowering stress and stress related responses. Behavioural modification studies have indicated that time-related studying goals are not generally effective (e.g. study for 2 hours every night) as it allows distractions to creep in and procrastination to become more prevalent. Set outcome goals instead like to complete an assigned reading, find articles related to your assignment or write 200 words to begin that assignment.

Eat well. Kelly McGonigal suggests that the more we exercise our will power the more easily it is depleted. Willpower requires a lot of energy and resources to maintain. Sure, a quick sugar burst will provide your mind with enough energy to concentrate on the task at hand, however, it is not sustainable. Research has indicated that a low-gylcemic (slow released energy such as protein, nuts and high fibre foods) diet works best for sustained energy release as well as self-control and self monitored deadlines. It’s tempting to eat a 500g bag of M&Ms while doing your readings, but it’s not helping.

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Take breaks. Adam Grant has provided research that procrastination may lead to the creation of original ideas and some of the most successful people are quick to start and slow to finish. This could be due to reducing the cognitive load and allowing yourself to have a quick break from the difficult task at hand. If you find yourself drifting off whilst studying, walk away, go on Facebook for five minutes, completely immerse yourself in another activity so you can come back to your study with a fresh mind and new ideas.

If your fear of missing out is high, set aside a day or two a week which allows you to go out with your friends, or read a book that is unrelated to your studies, or go on that hike you have been putting off. Research suggests that social support, sun exposure and exercise can greatly assist with increasing memory and a better mood.

Self monitor. Practice the following self-monitoring activities for a week:

  • Assess when you are most alert in the day: are you a morning person or do you work better at night?
  • What behaviours are competing with your study? What stops you or distracts you from your study?
  • How can you modify or minimise these distractions or competing behaviours?
  • Are you comfortable in your study area? Is it neat and tidy with a comfortable seat?

Manage self talk. Do you have an issue with negative self-talk? It could be something like “I’m never going to get this” or “I’ve been distracted all morning, there’s no point trying anymore”. Try instead accepting that you are distracted and work towards getting back on track. Self-compassion is also important in this process, it will help to reinforce your goals. And remember, not achieving your goal is not a failure! Treat it as a learning curve, observe what prevented you from achieving your goal and adjust it for your next weekly goal.


Want to learn more?

In person: Your campus should have exam and study support teams – check out their website

Watch: Kelly McGonigal’s Ted talks


written by Rebecca Abbott and Melissa Harries


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