Exam Preparation Skills

These articles all relate to preparing for exams.

Addressing Exam Anxieties

by Dahlia Miller
May 2005

“Most people are about as happy as they make up their mind to be.”
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

Exam anxiety is a very real phenomenon for many, many students. And it’s no wonder - a great deal of emphasis is placed on exams, these days. At the same time our society seems to feel uncomfortable with expressing anxiety, so little is done in schools to address students’ anxious feelings.

Below are some typical exam-anxiety behaviours. If you notice yourself, your child, your student, or your friend displaying any of these behaviours, you can help them by taking the time to listen to their fears. Just knowing that someone cares, or that there are other students out there who share the same anxiety about exams, can bring some relief. The second half of this article lists tips for moving beyond exam anxiety. Please pass them on.

Signs of Exam Anxiety

Feeling fearful
Concern about the outcome of exams
Shallow breathing
Tension in the shoulders
Tension in the stomach
Inability to focus
Lack of interest in studying
Overzealous, compulsive studying
Distracted – under-productive studying
Avoiding studying
General uneasiness
Certainty that won’t achieve desired grade on test
Fear about “freezing” at exam
No emotions about exam at all
Shaking hands
Perpetual negative outlook
Focus on history of “bad test” experiences
Thinking everyone else is more prepared
Worrying about not living up to expectations
Worrying about not completing the exam
Worrying about being confused by exam questions
Worrying about studying the wrong material
Forgetting to study
Forgetting time, date of test
Not sleeping well
Not eating well – healthy amounts of healthy foods
Not exercising or playing
Lethargic- lack of interest even in hanging out with friends
Not laughing
Restless mind – can’t settle down to study or relax
Over-reacting emotionally - quick to anger or tears
General negative attitude
Unwillingness to sit down and study
Biting nails – or other nervous habits
Not asking for help or expressing anxious feelings – pretending nothing is wrong
Over-attention to unnecessary details – re-organizing books, polishing shoes
Feelings of overwhelm
Feelings of anger or powerlessness

What Can We Do To Alleviate Exam Anxiety?

  • Recognize anxious thoughts and behaviours as they arise.
  • Talk with someone about your feelings.
  • Gain some perspective – how important is this grade in the scope of your life?
  • Consider this an opportunity to grow – you won’t feel as anxious next time if you transform some of your worry now.
  • Practise relaxation techniques – deep breathing – try just watching your belly as you take ten breaths.
  • Meditate - listen to meditation tapes.
  • Relax your muscles; your shoulders; especially your facial muscles.
  • Eat at least four or five fruits and vegetables per day.
  • Avoid caffeine and sugar.
  • Listen to your words – don’t criticize your study/exam-writing abilities.
  • Acknowledge all that you are doing to prepare – give yourself credit.
  • Read some of our articles on exam prep and study skills for tips on how to prepare.
  • Go for a walk in nature – by the water or in the trees.
  • Exercise – release some of that physical tension.
  • Take some time to play.
  • Exercise your courage.
  • Set some reasonable, achievable goals for yourself – including study goals.
  • Reward yourself when you follow through.
  • Have faith in your future – what are the opportunities in this experience?
  • Set time to study.
  • When you study, do something quick and easy first, then do the hardest thing second.
  • Remember that whatever happens, everything will be alright.
  • Hug someone.
  • View the exam as a challenge to be mastered.
  • Define /identify the rewards you will gain by mastering the challenge of the exam.
  • Encourage an optimistic attitude in yourself – program positive messages.
  • Believe in your ability.
  • Recognize your power – exams are a reality but you are not helpless.
  • Get to work – doing the work will alleviate some of your stress.
  • Partner with someone – share your goals (for studying and exams) and your feelings.

Anxious feelings don’t go away if they are ignored. They need to be brought out in the light of day and recognized. Accepting nervousness and acknowledging it helps to calm the feelings. We can soothe anxieties with positive action. Speaking and acting with confidence and calm will remind us that we are capable of doing what needs to be done.

Now give yourself a pat on the back and go study!

“If you are afraid because you have no self-confidence and feel that nothing you do will ever succeed, stop a while to think it over. Try to see why you imagine you are a loser before you have even started. You won’t find any really valid reason. The problem stems from your way of thinking, not from a real ineptitude.”
H.H. The Dalai Lama

How to Get Your Best Score on Every Test

Dahlia Miller
November 2003

“Success is a journey, not a destination.”

Taking a test is like running a race. Someone else is there grading your performance, while you work to show your best effort. The runners who do well in races are the ones who practise. Likewise, the people who do well on tests are the ones who put in the hours practising what they’ve been learning.

If you want to do your best on every test, you can’t wait until a day or two before the test to begin to study. You’ve got to put in the hours each night to keep yourself up to speed with your classes. Good test performance is dependent on good study habits.

Study Habits that are Essential to Good Test Performance:

  • Organization
  • Time management
  • Reading for comprehension
  • Note-taking
  • Memory development
  • Ability to express newly learned information in your own words
  • Ability to cope with test stress

Tips for How to Spend Your Time Leading up to a Test

Before You Even Look at the Material
Ask your teacher what information/ knowledge they are testing…this can give many clues into what will actually be on the test. You may be surprised at the information your teachers are willing to share about upcoming tests if they see you preparing ahead of time.

For every test, be sure that you know all of the details. When is the test? How long will the test be? What is the format for the test (will it be multiple choice, essay, short answer, true/false)? How much is the test worth?

Set a goal for yourself for the test. Picture yourself getting your marks, looking at your test, and seeing the score you wanted. Keep your goal in mind and know that you can achieve it.

Set a schedule for your time leading up to the test. Include time for continued study of your other subjects/homework, time for eating, sleeping, exercise, and fun. It is important to maintain a healthy routine. Exhausting yourself in the last few days before a test with too much study or worry will only drain your energy.

Looking at the Material
Gather all the information pertinent to your test – textbooks, notes, hand outs, past tests (if relevant), feedback from past assignments or tests (feedback is great for helping to fine-tune your approach).

Create a “table of contents” for all of the information that is going to be covered in the test. Use as many pages as you need to make a list of all the key points that will be covered. Note any specific areas of concern – either that you know you are weak on or that the teacher suggested may be central to the test. This should take you about 30 to 60 minutes.

Flesh out your table of contents with details. This should take 2-3 hours depending on how comprehensive the test is. What you are doing is creating a “summary sheet” of all of the information that is potentially going to appear on the test.

Review. Check items off of your summary sheet as you review them. Spend more time on points that are more difficult for you, but pay attention not to get bogged down in one section. The idea is to make it all the way through all of the topics before the test. If you work for 30-50 minutes with 10 minute breaks, you’ll help to boost your memory retention since our brains find beginnings and endings easiest to remember.

Practice. To beat test stress, you need to get comfortable with producing information under pressure. Practise in a timed setting. Knowing how long your test will be and how many questions will be on it, you can try to reproduce the actual timing of the test.

Practise output (especially written output). Make up questions and answer them, fill in practice worksheets, talk with someone about what you know, make flash cards, write stories or poems about the information, mind map, write practice essays or paragraphs.

Tips to Remember at the Test:

  • Your test is your performance. Maintain a positive, self-confident attitude. Focus on yourself; remember your goals; ignore what everyone else is doing.
  • Review the entire test when it is first handed out.
  • Budget your time. How long is the test? How many questions are there? Which ones are worth the most? Which ones are the easiest? Take a minute after your first read through of the test to orient yourself, make a quick plan, note the time, and begin.
  • Begin with the easiest questions first. This will boost your confidence and get you some easy marks at the same time.
  • Be sure to read all questions and directions carefully! Read them twice. Read them five times if you need to! You must understand what is being asked before you can give the best answer!
  • While you’re writing the test, focus your attention on answering the questions well.
  • Even if you finish early, stay to the end of the test. Kick back and relax. Feeling relaxed in a test setting can help reduce stress in future tests. And, if you’re lucky, an answer that had earlier escaped you might bubble up.
  • One last quick trick that used to help me to get through those grueling batteries of university tests: plan something to do after the test. Life goes on, and a plan for fun can help to take the pressure off.

Challenges, Examinations and Tests

by Dahlia Miller
Dec 2008

In this article, we’ll explore some perspectives on the challenges and tests that students face. Perhaps these points may help us to accept all our challenges and tests with greater willingness and understanding.

There’s a story about a young man and a rock. Perhaps it comes from Greek or Hindu mythology, but actually I’m not sure. It goes like this:

A god spoke to a young man and told him that he must push a boulder up the side of a particular mountain. The young man went to the mountain and found the boulder. He put his shoulder against the boulder but found that he couldn’t budge it. He pushed with all his might, but still couldn’t cause any change in the boulder’s position. Looking up the side of the mountain, the young man complained aloud saying that it was an impossible task. The god heard him and replied that he hadn’t said whether the task was possible or not, simply that it was the young man’s duty to put his full effort to pushing this boulder up the side of the mountain. The god then agreed to allow the young man to use a tool to help him in his efforts.

So, the young man found a lever and slowly moved the boulder some distance up the mountain. When he wanted to rest, he propped another rock below the boulder to prevent it from slipping back down the mountainside. It went on like this for many days, with the young man making only a few meters of progress up the mountain. Again he complained aloud.

The god again told him that although the task was a difficult one, it was required. So, the young man continued in his efforts.

After a month or so, the young man cried out at the futility of the task. The god spoke to the young man one more time: “I know that this task is nearly an impossible one. I knew, before you started, that you probably wouldn’t be able to push the boulder to the top of the mountain. But look at yourself now. Look at your body. After more than a month of effort, you are stronger than you ever were. This was the real goal of the task: to increase your determination, strength, patience, endurance and effort.”

From this story we can recognize some of the benefits of coming up against challenges and tests. Whether or not we “succeed” in accomplishing the stated goal, simply working through a challenge with determination brings its own rewards.

While we all encounter difficulties in our lives, students live lives full of challenges and tests. Students are constantly pushed to move beyond their current abilities not only in the many subjects they study, but in their time management, organization and oral and written communication as well. Some students feel the challenge of stretching their understanding on a daily basis, others only go through periods of difficulty or disruption in their study, but the fact is that all students, even the brightest, are tested. (Are there any schools without exams?)

Luckily, a student’s life is also filled with support. Parents, teachers, schools and agencies provide a background of support in the forms of encouragement, food, housing, transportation, supplies, opportunities, instruction and the benefit of their experience.

Basically, the many types of challenges and tests students face can be boiled down into four categories:

1. External Examinations – These are challenges that come to us from the outside, like tests and quizzes given by teachers.

We need tests to help recognize our level. From the teacher’s perspective, tests are there to help students. For example, a science test can help us to recognize how much we’ve understood the material, how well we’ve studied and how well we perform under test conditions. Even students who fail are helped by tests since they can then realize their shortcomings.

We only really realize our ability, habits and shortcomings after tests. There’s no point saying we’re good or that we understand. Tests help us to prove our level of understanding. When we’re stuck, or we score poorly on these types of external examinations, we need to realize if there’s something for us to learn and improve, or if there is something for us to overcome in ourselves.

We need to learn to be our own masters: stable and unaffected by the outside environment. This means accepting tests with willingness and an open mind.

2. Self Examinations – These are tests created by our own selves.

For students, self-examinations often arise when we are challenged on a personal level by something at school. It could be that a topic or type of assignment is especially difficult or it may be something interpersonal like a challenge with a teacher or fellow student. Although these may look like external examinations, they actually aren’t. Yes, the environment has an obvious impact, but it is the individual’s reaction that determines the exam. What I mean is that not everyone reacts in the same way to the same situation. For example, when students are given the same assignment or lecture, some will find it easy while others may find it to be extremely challenging. Therefore, it’s not the situation creating the test; the test is coming from within each individual.

Our responses to these self-examinations determine how they go. For example, if a student has trouble with a topic or a teacher, she may respond by not doing her homework. In this way, she is creating a test for herself. One result will obviously be lower marks. Over time, other results may be: falling behind; feeling overwhelmed in class; feeling nervous about falling behind; feeling frustrated when trying to keep up; feeling guilty and embarrassed in front of self, parents and classmates; and wanting to avoid these uncomfortable feelings. How we move through self-examinations depends on our self-understanding and what support is available.
When facing difficulties of this type, we need to reflect upon ourselves to see what we could be doing differently and how we may be getting in our own way. Most important is to learn from our experience and gain wisdom.

3. Examinations of “Going Against” – This is when it seems that everything is difficult or that nothing is going our way for a few hours, a day, a term or a year. In this case, things may not be easy and we need to set a firm determination to continue. Eventually, situations change. This type of examination helps to build our patience and our self-confidence. Watching ourselves continue to work hard, even under difficult conditions, is inspiring and will be a good memory for us in the future when we again encounter difficulties.

If we continually learn from obstacles, and gradually grow up, we’ll eventually elevate ourselves. There is no shortcut. We need to move step-by-step with effort and courage.

4. Examinations of “Smooth” – This may seem like a strange type of examination, but when school seems easy and homework is a breeze, it helps us to recognize our resolve and diligence. Sometimes students experience a time of relative ease at school. Often, when students go for long periods without feeling really challenged, they miss out on developing some of the skills that other students (who have to really work for it) get to learn - particularly study skills. Coasting along, it’s easy to get complacent and not work at developing new skills in time management, memory techniques, exam preparation or other course-related topics. Eventually, though, all students hit a point in their careers where they find the coursework difficult. At that point, if they haven’t learned how to study, they can find themselves falling behind quite quickly and lose confidence in themselves. This type of “smooth” examination helps us to see our level of commitment, responsibility and diligence in encouraging ourselves to grow.

As we have seen, there are many types of examinations and challenges that students face. Although they are in part created by the outside situation, most of the challenges come from our own selves and our reactions to what is happening around us. Any type of challenge can help us to see ourselves more clearly. In fact, without encountering difficulties, we’ll stay at the same level. Whether we are able to overcome our own habits, reactions and current skill level depends on our efforts.

We all need to be willing to accept the tests that come to us. They help to build our patience, endurance, strength, skill, and acceptance. Our level of achievement isn’t based on our estimation or others’ judgments, but on our actions. When we’re going to move to a new level, we’ll be tested. So, these tests are part of our growth process. Facing all examinations with a good attitude makes our lives more enjoyable.

“Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.”
Vernon Sanders Law, baseball pitcher

Beating Exam Stress

by Dahlia Miller
December 2005

This article was originally published in the June 2004 edition of Island Parent Magazine.

“I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”
Woody Allen

Have you ever had one of those final exam dreams? The type where you arrive late to school only to discover that today is your final exam, you have ten minutes to write an exam that you haven’t studied for, and you are standing in the exam room, in front of everyone, in only your underwear?

It’s easy to feel exposed in an exam because really, the entire purpose of an exam is to expose your ability. You are being judged on how well you produce information, and you are being timed. There is no doubt that exams, and prepping for exams, can cause anxiety.

The best cure for exam anxiety is preparation. Good exam performance is dependent on good study habits; generally, the more prepared you are, the more confident you will be on exam day. Below you’ll find tips for how to prepare and study for exams, what to do at the exam, and how parents can support their kids who are studying for final exams.

Preparing and Studying for Exams

  • Have a study place that is free of distractions.
  • For every exam, be sure that you know all of the details. When is the exam? How long will the exam be? What is the format for the exam (will it be multiple choice, essay, short answer, true/false)?
  • How much of your final mark is the exam worth?
  • Set a schedule for your time leading up to exams. It is important to maintain a healthy routine. Plan how much time to study daily for each exam.
  • Gather all pertinent textbooks, notes, handouts, past exams (if relevant), study aids, and feedback from past assignments or exams.
  • Determine what the major concepts are. What do you need to know? Ask your teacher what information is being examined.
  • Complete all necessary course readings.
  • Create a “table of contents” for all of the information that is going to be covered. Note any areas of concern. Flesh out your table of contents with details to create a “summary sheet” of all of the information that is potentially going to appear on the exam. Check items off of your summary sheet as you review them. Spend more time on points that are more difficult for you.
  • Write, talk or sing about what you know. You need to get comfortable expressing your understanding of the topic. Make up questions and answer them; fill in practice worksheets; talk with people about what you know; make colour-coded flash cards; write notes, stories or poems about the information; mind map; write practice essays or paragraphs.
  • Time yourself, or have someone time you, as you answer questions. The more comfortable you are being timed, the easier it will be for you to work under pressure at the actual exam.
  • Team up with others (even your parents). Practise teaching, quizzing, and building practice questions for each other.
  • Once you know the location of the exam, it’s very helpful to go there and study.

What to Do at the Exam

  • Be sure to get to the exam on time without rushing. Eat well, and drink enough water on exam day. Bring all of the supplies you’ll need for the exam. If you have a favourite pen you write with, use that pen during the exam - but always bring a spare.
  • Your exam is your performance. Maintain a positive, self-confident attitude. Focus on yourself; remember your goals; ignore what everyone else is doing.
  • Before or during the exam, do shoulder rolls, or tighten your hands into fists and then release them slowly, breathing deeply.
  • When the exam is first handed out, quickly review the entire thing. Budget your time. How long is the exam? How many questions are there? Which ones are worth the most?
  • Begin with the easiest questions first. This will boost your confidence and get you some easy marks at the same time.
  • Be sure to read all directions carefully and thoroughly! Read them twice. Read them five times if you need to!
  • While you’re writing the exam, focus your attention on answering the questions well.

How Parents Can Help Their Kids Prep for Final Exams

  • If your child is not confident with her ability with an exam topic, get her the help she needs: help her yourself; hire a tutor; check at school for a peer tutoring program; or direct her to other resources – like the internet, the library, books or videos.
  • Talk about your experiences with exams and with this exam topic. How did you feel entering your finals? What strategies worked for you in coping with exam stress?
  • Help your kids to maintain a healthy study schedule. Study sessions that are too long or that are too unvaried will actually lower memory retention. A healthy study schedule includes time for exercise, plenty of sleep, and free time. It also includes eating well and drinking plenty of water.
  • Be a cheerleader for your kids. Let them know that you believe in their ability to prepare for and pass their exams.

“One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation.”
Arthur Ashe