As a student, you’ll face many academic related stressors throughout your time in education. However, exam season can be a particularly delicate and difficult time for all students. In a study assessing perceptions of stress and coping mechanisms amongst undergraduates, students reported their levels of stress increase before exams. Stress is a natural part of the exam season and can have a positive impact for some students by increasing their motivation, or desire to achieve. But, stress can become overwhelming without the proper coping strategies and understanding of stress, as noted in the study above. The good news is - stress can be managed with a few simple and practical steps.
For example, a study revealed that medical students used acceptance and planning as their two coping mechanisms for tackling exam stress. These students used acceptance to manage their emotions. By accepting their stress as something that is out of their control and is simply a natural occurrence, they avoided trying to control the emotion excessively. This approach can prevent the emotion from becoming more intense. Additionally, these students used planning to manage their stress, even those who struggled to adopt the acceptance approach.
Planning was a method that focused on problem solving. They sought solutions to their exam concerns by improving their knowledge of learning styles, or organising their exams by level of difficulty. A proactive approach like this can help us to feel in control and directly manage the worries we have related to exams. Below, we’ll share some tips for proactively approaching revision and maintaining your well being throughout the exam season.
The Importance of Goal Setting and Progress Tracking
Set small and attainable goals. Goals can be essential for staying on track and maintaining your focus. Broad goals can cause you to feel overwhelmed, unfocused and encourage procrastination. For example, if your goal is to spend all day in the library, you might leave feeling unaccomplished. Likewise, starting your revision without attainable and focused goals can leave you feeling aimless, and unable to make efficient progress. By taking the time to set goals that are attainable in the short term, you can ensure you’re focusing on what matters and nurture your motivation to continue progressing towards these goals.
This can reduce stress as you know what you should be working on, and what is necessary to succeed during the overwhelming season of exams. A well written goal will be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound (SMART). This method of setting goals is highly effective and has even been tested by teachers to improve learning outcomes. For revision, your goal might be to study symptoms of anxiety. The goal is specifically focusing on symptoms rather than learning all of the anxiety related content. You can measure this by self-testing and examining the score, or by noting how much time you spent on the topic. For this goal to be achievable, you can reflect on how realistic it is. Can you achieve this in the timeframe set? Does the goal need to be refined further?
Like achievability, checking if your goal is relevant will also require some honest self-reflection. Is this topic relevant to your exams and does this goal directly relate to your revision progress? Sometimes, we can mix up things that might be tasks, like organising our revision material, with working on our goals. Tasks can make us feel as if we’re being productive. So, be careful to distinguish between general tasks and those goal-focused to-dos. Both are important but when setting goals for revision, it’s the learning we’re focused on. Finally, giving your goal a timeframe or deadline ensures it’s time bound, and can encourage you to work more efficiently knowing the end is in sight.
Visualise Progress. Similar to goal setting, being able to see your progress visually can be incredibly satisfying. This can act as a way to measure our goals and hold ourselves accountable. You can build an honest overview of whether or not you’re making progress in your revision.
One way to do this is using time tracking tools such as Toggl or Forest. Toggl allows you to start a timer, and track how long you have spent on a project or category of tasks. You can view charts of how you spent your time over the day, week or month. Alternatively, Forest allows you to build your own personal forest of virtual trees. Each tree is planted when you set a specified timer - this is useful if you use time management techniques such as the pomodoro. These tools can allow you to approach time management mindfully, highlighting how much time is spent on focused work. You can also feel a sense of accomplishment knowing you’re putting in the time and effort. It can be difficult to recognise the progress we’re making, so having objective measures is helpful.
Beyond time tracking, you can visualise progress by having an overview of your subject or syllabus. For example, the retrospective revision timetable allows you to see a colour coded overview of your confidence across all the topics in your course. You can also see at a glance when you last revised the topic and how often. This again, holds you accountable by showing you areas that need improving and acknowledging your strengths. This can reduce stress by encouraging you to work on those areas of concern. Likewise, you might feel less stressed knowing you have a thorough plan at hand. Instead of holding everything in mind, you know everything is accounted for in one timetable, checklist or plan. Even if you’ve had a bad day, you have a grounding point that is realistic and tangible, highlighting where you’re at and what needs doing.
The Power of Accountability and Self-Care
Have an accountability partner. Truth is, it can be hard to keep ourselves in check all the time. We might have our goals and means of progress tracking but sometimes, we need some external accountability. This is where having someone else who checks in and holds you accountable regularly can help to keep you on track. You might share daily or weekly study goals and reflect at the end on your progress. Someone else might be able to point out areas of improvement. These checkpoints can mean you make adjustments sooner rather than later. Your accountability partner could be a friend, family member, coursemate or someone in an online community. Nowadays, there are large online study communities that allow you to work towards a shared vision. A study found social media, when used to facilitate learning, can reduce students' stress levels during exam season.
Engage in self-care. To better manage our levels of stress, improve our focus and work to the best of our ability - we need to take care of ourselves. Real self-care is recognising that you're more than simply a learning machine and need rest. Self-care is a necessity for your well-being each day and not something that needs to be earned. These well-being focused habits can act as a buffer when you feel stressed and overwhelmed. This might be taking a walk, having a snack, making sure to stay hydrated, sharing worries with friends, or planning something fun in the week. Identify the things that make you feel energised and well-rested. This way, you’re less likely to encounter burnout and will come back to revision sessions feeling recharged. If you’re short on time, even small moments of quiet, a power nap or a short walk can make all the difference too.