As O and A levels get under way, primary and secondary school students are also getting ready for their own exams in June. Ahead of them are long hours of studying and an endless list of things to memorise!
While stress levels tend to rise among many students during the examination period, anxiety symptoms can become so significant that they start interfering with either the students’ or the parents’ everyday lives.
Anxiety typically involves an emotional component such as nervousness or fear; a physiological component, which may include agitation and fast breathing, trembling, high heart rate, fatigue or stomach churning; as well as a cognitive component, such as an impending sense of doom, excessive worry and negative thoughts.
Anxiety may also cause difficulty with concentration and working memory. Some may also feel generally overwhelmed and lack motivation. These characteristics can ultimately affect one’s daily behaviour, for example through putting off academic or work tasks, avoiding people or social situations, avoiding having to deal with difficult situations, difficulty falling or staying asleep, engaging in excessive smoking, drinking too much alcohol or excessive use of drugs. Needless to say, each individual differs in their ability to be resilient, and to continue to thrive in stressful life situations.
For students, their ability to cope with examination stress or anxiety can be influenced by the current year of studies they are enrolled in, present or past negative experiences, relationship or family issues.
Their ability to cope well with exams is also influenced by the suitability of the environment they study in, their time management and organisational skills, as well as their overall ability to cope with exam-related stress and their overall attitude towards exams.
Resilience also includes the ability to foster positive attitudes towards life and to perceive challenges as opportunities for growth.
Helpful strategies for students
Here are some strategies that both primary and secondary school students can utilise to help their mental well-being throughout any upcoming examination periods.
- Taking notes in class and keeping them organised
When a student pays attention in class and takes good notes, one would already be starting the process of learning and studying. Hence, it is ideal to write down important learning points in bullet form or in the form of a map, which one can then refer to when doing the homework or studying for an exam. If one is having difficulties paying attention, especially when sitting in a distracting place in class or even having difficulties seeing the board, make sure to speak out.
- Planning ahead
Putting things off for the last few days before the exam is no fun. This will likely lead to overwhelmed feelings, such as frustration or guilt. This will not have any student in the right frame of mind to learn and study. Ask for a fancy calendar and write down any test and assignment due dates. One can then plan how much studying to do each day, what topics to study and how much time to dedicate for each topic. Students can also revise the night before, perhaps with better focus on topics which they had found difficulties in, during their previous study periods.
- Breaking it down
When students have lots to study, breaking things into smaller chunks of work can help. If a student has 20 problems to solve, try breaking them down into four chunks of five problems each time. The sight of less work at once will give the sense that what one is doing is achievable. This will also promote a calmer sense of well-being and is likely to result in better performance and improved quality of work.
- Using tricks!
Some exams require that one remembers facts. Don’t worry if you cannot remember something on the first try; the trick of improved memory is to practise. The more one revises or reviews something, the more likely one will remember it. Mnemonics are tricks that help the brain remember. For example, when trying to memorise a list, make up a phrase that uses the first letter of each item on the list.
- Asking for help
Students cannot study effectively if they have not understood the topic they are revising. Be sure to ask the teacher for help when confused about something so that they are able to go over it again. If at home during the holidays, perhaps any friends, siblings, parents or carers can help out too.
Establishing rewards for completed topics or tasks will help students feel more motivated about finishing what they had planned. For example, if one’s tablet and mobile are switched off during studying, one might want to schedule a 10-minute tablet break between one task and another. If one is making great effort to remain seated till all the topics planned are covered, one might prefer a short movement or snack break in the kitchen.
The test is tomorrow and most of us do feel our minds going blank. Don’t worry. The brain has been through a lot, and it just needs time to process all the information it has received. Try to get a good night’s sleep, at least between six to eight hours before the exam. This will help the brain recharge and the body be prepared for the exam.
Tips for parents
Here is also some suggestions for parents who could be as anxious or more for their children during this time of the year.
- Providing a study space
Having a dedicated space for studying helps children feel more settled and helps them establish routine in how they go about their work. Think about whether the space is well-lit, and free from any unnecessary distractions which can be present around the house. Make sure that they have water and snacks available. It will also be helpful for them to have easy access to colourful pens, sticky notes or stationery items they might need.
- Helping them organise their workload
Get children to be responsible for their workload before they find themselves in a tight spot. Parents can practise this by giving them small projects during the year that tap into their interest, as this gives them a chance to practise their organisational skills and become more effective. Encourage children to set goals and evaluate their outcomes.
- Managing and preparing for exams
Help your children break tasks into smaller parts so they can focus on one part at a time. Practise working on similar exam papers and offer help when it is needed. Using their books and giving no time limit at first will help them feel more confident. Encourage your children to use visual aids such as highlighters, sticky notes, flashcards and mind maps to help them remember important points more effectively.
- Talking about their feelings
Anxiety is one of the biggest barriers to exam performance. Dedicate time to speak to children about how they are currently feeling. Perhaps when overwhelmed, one can offer activities which can help relieve some of their heavy feelings. This may include a walk or playing outside, engaging in breathing exercises, meeting a friend, or simply having a snack together.
- Encouraging positive self-talk and relaxation
If children are feeling rather low and are not showing confidence in their abilities during this time, reassure them and help them build positive beliefs about themselves. Show them that parents do believe in their capabilities. Saying things like “I’m not worried, I know you can do this!”, or “You have worked so hard, knowing that you have tried your best is good enough for me!” will help them feel much better. Practice visualisation or breathing exercises on your way to the exam. Encourage them to focus on what they are hearing, smelling or seeing. Alternatively, they might want to close their eyes and visualise a calming place, which is stress-free.
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