Exam stress

We experience anxiety when we worry that something will go wrong in the future. It’s something we all experience at some point in our lives, and in many cases, it can become debilitating. We become so overwhelmed by our fears that we simply cannot function properly.

We consulted Cape Town based Clinical Psychologist, Janie Loubser, to get a better understanding of how anxiety works, and what we can do to overcome our exam jitters.

‘Anxiety is a global problem,’ says Janie. ‘The sad truth is that anxiety has become a state of being in modern society. With almost every client I see, the root cause of their problems is usually that they’ve become so anxious that they just can’t see a way out.’

But why do we experience exam stress?

‘The way the current school system is set up, we’re judged on a vast amount of knowledge at the end of a long learning process. What I think a lot of learners forget is that exams are only the end of all the work they’ve already put in,’ Janie says

‘There’s this prize at the end of the journey that you’re so scared of not getting – whether it’s an A, university exemption, or a pass. Only in hindsight do we realise just how unimportant certain details really are, so it’s important to have a very clear vision of your goals. Ask yourself, ‘What am I going to do after school and how is this exam going to help me get there?’ The challenge is that there will always be negative thoughts that stand in our way of attaining that goal, for example, ‘Am I good enough?’

‘But you have to remember that your future is much bigger than this vision you have of your life at school. Instead of limiting your thoughts only to things surrounding the exam, ask yourself, ‘What else do I see? How do I see my life?’ 

So, what can we do to get over exam stress?

‘A lot of exam stress has to do with acing your exam on the day, but performing at your peak shouldn’t be your only focus,’ Janie says, who believes that there are two factors that contribute to exam stress:

  1. Performance anxiety
  2. A knowledge gap

Your first step should be to figure out why you’re feeling so anxious. Here is where you need to be honest with yourself:

  1. Do you know the syllabus back to front, but you’re scared something will go wrong on the day of the exam?
  2. Or, are there parts of the syllabus you haven’t mastered yet and that’s making you anxious?

Once you know what’s causing you to stress, there are certain steps you can follow to overcome it.

Overcoming Performance Anxiety

It is important to remember that a measure of stress is necessary. So, instead of turning stress into the enemy, use it, because it helps you acknowledge that this exam is very important to you. Going into the exam too relaxed can backfire too.

Step 1: Face your fears

Pretend you’re someone else. Ask yourself: Jesse, what are you afraid of? Then, answer that person as yourself.

There are many answers you could give here, some of which might include:

  • I’m scared of not finishing the exam on time.
  • I’m scared of getting a B instead of an A.
  • I’m scared of failing.
  • I’m scared of not getting the marks I need to get into university.
  • I’m scared of striking a blank during the exam.
  • All of the above.

As soon as you figure out what’s causing you to stress, move on to the next step.

Step 2: Figure out what you want

Now that you know what you don’t want to happen, what do you want to happen? ‘People very rarely allow themselves to ask this question when they’re stressed, but it’s so important in overcoming anxiety,’ Janie says.

Use your insights from step one. If you’re scared of not finishing the exam on time, say to yourself: I want to finish the exam on time. Then, think of what you can do to make that happen, which brings us to the final step.

Step 3: Visualise the exam day

To achieve what you want to happen, sketch a picture in your mind of the exam day. And be as detailed as possible. Talking to yourself in the first person (as I), say something along these lines to yourself:

  1. I arrive at the exam venue, feeling confident, comfortable and at ease.
  2. I take my seat and get comfortable.
  3. I ground myself, placing my feet shoulder width apart on the floor in front of me.
  4. I take in my space, making sure I can see everything I need in front of me (i.e. my pens, pencils, sharpener, rubber, ruler, compass, etc.)
  5. I focus on my breathing. I bring my hands together – connecting them with my fingers – and place them over my stomach. I can feel my stomach expand as I breathe in and contract as I breathe out.
  6. I become aware of my body, starting at my toes and moving all the way up to my head. I feel good.
  7. When the paper comes, I position it in front of me. I write my name and ID number on the front page. I wait for the invigilator to tell us when to start.
  8. I move easily through the paper, reading every instruction carefully, only answering when I’m sure I fully understand the question.
  9. If I don’t understand a question – or am uncertain about an answer – I don't have to worry about it because I know the answer will come to me. I move on to the next question and I answer it with ease.
  10. If at any point I feel panicked or overwhelmed, I’m allowed to take a short break and focus on my breathing. Focussing on my breath clears my mind and allows me to see the solution to any of the problems I am faced with.

Practice this a few times. This should become your mantra every time you feel really stressed out about the exam.

Overcoming Your Knowledge Gap

Oftentimes, the biggest cause of your exam stress could be that there’s a very real gap between where you are and where you need to be for the exam. So, instead of avoiding the issue, face it as soon as possible. You’ll start to feel a lot better.

Step 1: Evaluate

Lay your whole syllabus out in front of you. Go through your textbook and draw a mind map of all the sections you need to master for the exam. For instance, if you’re laying out your Grade 12 Maths syllabus, your mindmap would include the following sections:

  • Algebra and Equations
  • Patterns, Sequences and Series
  • Finance, Growth and Decay
  • Functions and Graphs
  • Differential Calculus
  • Probability
  • Statistics
  • Analytical Geometry
  • Trigonometry
  • Euclidian Geometry and Measurement

With each section, make a note of everything you know and what you don’t know. Most importantly, be honest and do not avoid anything that makes you uncomfortable.

Step 2: Come clean

If you have realised that there’s a gap in your knowledge, it means you need someone to help you close that gap. Whether it’s your teacher, your mom or dad, or a tutor – you need to be as open and honest with them as possible. ‘But whoever you choose,’ Janie cautions, ‘they must be able to help you quickly and effectively.’

Step 3: Create an action plan

It’s important to acknowledge what you do know at this stage. ‘We have a tendency to overlook the things we’ve mastered,’ Janie says, ‘but if we need to seek help – which we often do when we have a knowledge gap – we need to communicate this to the person who’s going to help us get where we need to be.’

Then, use a calendar. Say to yourself, for instance: By the 10th, I want to know those six Euclidean Geometry Theorems ‘Be specific,’ says Janie, ‘because by breaking everything up into tiny bits, the tasks become more manageable and you’re able to achieve your goals more effectively.’

Step 4: Talk to Yourself

Even an action plan can be overwhelming, so to boost your confidence, ‘Tell yourself you’re getting better at solving this type of equation or proving that theorem,’ Janie says. ‘Remember that you don’t have to master everything at once.’ It might seem self-indulgent and unnecessary, but your confidence acts like fuel. The more of it you have, the further you’ll go, so keep giving yourself constructive feedback.

Step 5: Break it up

Similar to setting goals using a calendar, ‘Dividing the work into smaller chunks is the easiest way to start anything that feels overwhelming – to make it feel less like a mountain,’ Janie says.

One method she suggests is to use a stopwatch. When you start, set it to 10 minutes at a time. When it goes off, stand up, clear your head and ask yourself, ‘How do I feel?’ Say out loud what you’re still struggling with, why you think you’re struggling with it, and what you think you need to focus on next to figure it out. Then, set the stopwatch again and give it your best shot. Repeat.

‘With every 10 minutes you put in, it gets easier,’ Janie says. Eventually, you won’t need to use the stopwatch anymore, because you’ll just want to keep going. That’s when you know you’ve had a breakthrough.

Finally, Janie advises, ‘Whatever you do, don’t jump around. Finish each section before moving on to the next, because you build more confidence that way.’ Ideally, you should give yourself a day to master a certain section or portion of the work. Jumping between multiple sections on the same day – in other words, looking busy – is often an avoidance tactic.

Whether it’s performance anxiety or a knowledge gap that’s causing you to stress about the exam, you have the ability to create a positive exam experience for yourself. And a positive experience will lead to positive results. 

Clinical Psychologist Janie Loubser spoke to us about exam stress.

Janie Loubser runs a well-established psychology practice in Mouille Point, Cape Town. She holds a an MA in Clinical Psychology from the University of Stellenbosch.


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