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Coping with exam stress Managing stress


While revising, focus on the one topic you're revising now, not on what else you still have to cover. If you get stuck on a topic, leave it and come back when you're fresh. Ask for help from students, your tutor or your student support team if you need it.

Have a clear idea of how you are going to spend the time immediately before the exam, and include activities that help you to keep things in perspective. It may be worth thinking about something you achieved that meant a lot to you. It will help you acknowledge that the exam is not the only important thing - and is well within your capabilities.

I realised that talking to other students before the exam wound me up, so now I just listen to music while waiting for the exam hall to open.

If stress affects you, try to find ways to maintain a positive attitude and cultivate a positive approach during your revision. You could

  • keep fit by taking some exercise you enjoy
  • relax, perhaps by sitting quietly or meditating
  • eat well, but healthily
  • get sufficient sleep
  • take some planned time away from study, rather than feel you're avoiding revision
  • be pleased with your achievements as you revise
  • reward yourself with an occasional treat.

If I begin to panic during the exam, I say to myself STOP and then sit back and take several deep breaths to try to relax a little.

Exam stress can arise for many different reasons. These audio tracks explore some of those reasons and give you a way of rationalising your worries and coping with them. Although these clips may refer to taking an exam at an exam centre and handwriting your exam, they can still be useful.

Coping with exam stress introduction

Click here to listen 56

David: Hello. I'm David Charles and this programme for the Open University provides guidance on understanding and dealing with examination stress. You'll hear a variety of students discussing their experiences of exams. In this programme we're going to look at specific points we think are important. To help me with this I'm joined by my friend Sunita.

Sunita: Now that the exam is looming I'm starting to panic about all sorts of things. Things like how am I going to get through all the work? Will I get to the exam centre on time? And of course the exam itself. Last time I took one was at school and that was hard enough.

David: Well, let's just tackle one thing at a time and try and get things into perspective. It's worth remembering that those marking your exam will take into account the conditions that you are under and any anxiety and stress you may be feeling. After all, the examiners are only human, they are tutors themselves and many of them take exams just like you. So they know just what you may be going through.

Stress related to writing

Click here to listen 158

Sunita: I worry that my writing's going to be terrible and illegible. When I try and write quickly it just looks like a drunken spider's fallen into a pot of ink and crawled across the page.

David: Well, you're not alone. Try to practice your handwriting for a few hours, just to get the feel of it.

Sunita: But I've tried that and my writing still looks bad. I've got a genuine problem with it.

David: Have you told your tutor about this? in cases like this it's most important that you tell your tutor about any problems you may be having. You might be surprised at the solutions they offer. Dr. John Kearsey, a tutor and examiner at the Open University, had a similar problem with his writing. He was also worried when it came to taking exams at the OU.

Dr John Kearsey: One of the things that I found about the Open University was that it was the first organisation that was prepared to take account of the fact that I had this problem. The first examination that I came up against as it were I spoke to my tutor about it and he said you should fill in the form - and I said what do you mean? And they said well, the Open University wants you to be able to do your best and you can say I have this problem with writing and the Open University will take it into account in the exam. And actually what happened was they gave me a dispensation that I could have a fifteen minute break in the middle of an examination. Now, fifteen minutes doesn't sound like very much but it made a tremendous difference to me. I would urge anybody whatever issue you have, it's well worth talking to your tutor and seeing whether or not the Open University can't accommodate you.

David: These days so many of us are used to sitting at our computers inputting data with a keyboard and a mouse that we rarely handle a pen at all. Having to write for three hours in an exam is difficult for most people. So have a go at practicing this.

Sunita: You're right. Writing essays by hand has been a real shock to the system for me. I always forget just how difficult it is to write for so long. I even end up having to let my arm hang down, just to get some blood back into it and letting the muscles relax after gripping the pen so tightly.

David: What you write with can make difference too. If you find a biro uncomfortable try an ink pen or one with a soft tip. The OU can help you with all sorts of things, not just giving you a fifteen minute break in an exam. Even home visits can be arranged and an amanuensis.

Sunita: Bless you.

David: No amanuensis. It's a posh word for someone who will take dictation and do your writing for you. Now that's very useful if you have a genuine difficulty in this area. Like John said, the OU wants you to do your best and will help you in any way it can.

Sunita: Do you know I feel better about my writing already.

Revision stress

Click here to listen 220

Sunita: Look at this enormous pile of work. How am I supposed to revise it? Where do I start and even more importantly, when should I stop? I can see myself revising right up to the night before the exam and then I'm going to be in a right state, I just know it!

David: The key thing here is not to panic. Know your limits. You mentioned that you'd revise right up to the night before and you know what, that would only serve to get you in a right state. So why do it? Better to give yourself a night off before the exam.

Sunita: I have a friend who always crams right up to the last minute when taking exams. How come he can do that and I can't?

David: Well, as I said, it's all about knowing your limits. Now obviously your friend thrives on pressure and that works for him. Now in your case that sort of schedule will only wind you up and make you more nervous. Let's hear from a couple of students on their differing experiences. First of all, Dr. John Kearsey;

Dr John Kearsey: I am the sort of person who has a sort of cut off point where I will study the day before and then I shall reach a point when I say right that's it. If I don't know it now then it's too bad. And then try to have a calm evening the night before. Try to get a good night's sleep because if you're not fully in command of your senses you are not going to be much good.

Louise: I revise the night before a morning exam. I wouldn't be able to not do that. I'd feel like there might be this one little thing, one article or something I might read that would come in and I'd be kicking myself if I thought to read it and then didn't. Though I know some people say you shouldn't revise the night before an exam because if you don't know it by now you never will. So I think it is up to individuals, it's what works for you.

Valerie: I learned the very very valuable lesson of not revising right up to the last minute. I would say one of the best tips I could give anybody else would be don't do anything else the day before. Just go and do something totally different. Just give your brain a chance to relax and recover and heal itself so that you can go in feeling fresh and being able to analyse things properly on that day. A day's rest is certainly vital.

Sunita: I think I'm kidding myself if I think one extra day is really going to help. I should give myself a night off. Still, it's a lot of work to do in the meantime though.

David: Well there's plenty of advice on the Open University's website to help you plan your revision schedule. If you go over past papers and all the notes and the handouts you've collected it's usually quite easy to spot the big ideas and these can then form the basis of your revision. And you can also use the Open University's online discussion forums to share your experiences with others like you. Here are some more thoughts on preparing for revision;

Valerie: I have always found with examinations it goes better the better prepared you are for them.

Louise: You can definitely think too hard and look for kind of perfection in your revision. I think that's impossible really. But what you can do is make yourself a revision plan and stick to it as best you can.

Henry: I took a few more sort of risks with my preparation in that I looked at the exam papers in quite a lot of detail and quite early on and tried to analyse the exam papers as much as possible and then really try and concentrate on revising for the exam in particular. So rather than revising everything that's covered, really concentrate on techniques and the sort of problems that seemed likely to occur in the exam.

Goal related stress

Click here to listen 153

David: You have to set yourself realistic goals. Perhaps you're someone who always placed high expectations on yourself at school? Setting unobtainable goals or unrealistic goals in perhaps trying to get a really high pass is going to do nothing but heap more pressure on you. Here are two examples of other students doing just that.

Carole: I had a very bad experience, and I am always harking back to it. At primary school where our teacher for some reason unbeknown to us decided that he would ask us each to set ourselves a standard to reach in the weekly test. Well Miss Conscientious set herself this goal of I think eighteen out of twenty and never managed to achieve it for weeks and weeks. We were kept in during games if we didn't manage to achieve our target. And it has obviously left hideous scars on my psyche.

Helen: I think when I take the exams I am constantly worrying about failing. I have never actually failed one. … looking back now I see I probably was a horribly clever child but I was nowhere near as clever as my brother. And apparently I was nowhere near as clever as my mother. And when I used to get anything wrong in a test at school if I went home and told them I actually got smacked for how many I got wrong and I guess I have never really got over that.

Sunita: They sound like they're putting incredible stress on themselves. I don't think I'm like that.

David: Even so, there are many people who put themselves under that level of stress. And here's a tip: try some 'Positive Self Talk'. Basically, if you have talked yourself into believing that you may fail or not achieve the pass mark that you think you require then that is more likely to happen. Why not turn this around into believing that you can pass? If you take a positive attitude to your revision and the exam itself you are far more likely to succeed than if you kept a negative frame of mind.

Sunita: So if I see it all as a challenge I can rise to it. Look it in the eye and say "I can do this". I will set myself realistic targets and I will ignore any previous bad experiences. After all, they're not relevant so why should they happen again?

David: That's the spirit.

Exam stress summary

Click here to listen 52

Sunita: Now I think we've covered all the bases haven't we? I know that if I need any help with my writing and my revision I should contact my tutor. I'm going to ask about revision workshops as well, that's a really good idea. I know I have to prepare a revision timetable and practice some Positive Self-Talk. That should help ease my stress levels. And I'm going to relax the day before the exam so that I go into it mentally refreshed.

David: Exactly. And another thing you may like to do is listen to the OU's audio programmes on relaxation techniques. It's basically a set of physical and mental relaxation exercises to help you reduce tension and relax for the exam. Perhaps you could listen to them before you go into your exam. You may even find it useful for dealing with everyday stress as well.

Sunita: Sounds good.

David: Best of luck and I hope you do well in your exams too.

Last updated 7 months ago