Dealing with tension

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How to Survive Exam Week


It is normal to expect a certain amount of tension preparing for finals. Actually, a little anxiety helps to heighten your awareness and can enhance your performance.

1. Take time to relax. Cope with your excess tension before and between exams through rest, exercise and deep muscle relaxation. For example, long walks and bike rides are excellent ways to release nervous energy and maintain your stamina for the duration of your exam period.

2. Adopt a positive approach. To avoid becoming too anxious, look at the exam as the application step of your study efforts, instead of a threatening new experience. Replace all negative thoughts with positive ones.

3. Anxiety is Contagious. Keep away from people who are highly anxious before exams, because their nervousness may tend to increase your own.

4. Plan Rewards. Schedule a meal, a game, or a visit with a friend periodically throughout finals. Plan a treat when they're all done. These help keep your spirits up.


Prepare a general schedule. Write down the time of each exam and plan how much time you can allot to studying for each course; remember that your hardest course will require more time.

1. Start Early. Schedule your study periods to avoid last minute cramming.
2. Allow large blocks of time for studying. Block out at least 4-5 hours each day for getting down concepts and basic relationships and take a 10-15 minute break after each hour. Studying each subject more days per week is better for memory recall, than fewer days per week and longer hours.
3. Allow short periods for review. Use the odd moments, ie: walking across campus, for recall and review - Run through the information frequently; this will ensure that you remember it and it will broaden your understanding. Don’t just read and reread notes! Quiz yourself daily to identify what you know and don’t know.
4. Vary what you study. Don't study for two similar courses consecutively. It is better to break the pattern with a completely different study approach. For example, study chemistry and then French instead of chemistry and then physics.
5. Schedule breaks. Respect your concentration span. Especially if you haven't studied much all semester, it may be difficult to study for several hours at a time. Set a rescue timer: something that will beep or vibrate after a certain amount of time. This will help you concentrate on the task at hand and let you take appropriate breaks.
6. Stay with your routine. Stick to your normal daily routine as much as possible. If you do get off your routine and need extra time, avoid staying up all night; go to bed at your regular time and get up a couple of hours earlier than you normally would, to continue studying. You will be able to understand and remember more when you are rested than you would if you postpone rest.


As you approach the first exam, and the time between exams:

1. Spend your last hours calmly reviewing what you’ve learned. Try not to tackle new material then.

2. Avoid staying up all night. Your body needs sleep to help you clearly think and write what you have learned on the exam.

3. Cram selectively. The night before an exam when you are more anxious than usual is one of the least effective times for study. Your ability to deal with concepts and synthesize material is greatly reduced, and even your ability to memorize is impaired by marked anxiety. Cramming only serves to make you more frantic about the exam and, hence, less prepared to do your best. If you do come up to exam time unprepared, use your last minute studying as a review of key concepts, instead of trying to learn it all. Be realistic about what you can accomplish: set priorities based on what you expect to be emphasized on the test. Stay calm.

4. Stay on task. Don't get involved in any activities that might either interfere with what you have been learning or make you feel so guilty that you come home to study far into the night to make up for lost time. Review and relax.


1. Try to avoid conversations with classmates right before an exam. Chances are someone will say something wrong about what they studied. You don’t want misspoken information to cause you to panic or increase your stress level right before taking a test.

2. You want to remain calm, so the information you know is easier to recall. Take long breaths in your nose, hold it for four seconds, and then exhale out your mouth. Think positive thoughts!


In addition to taking an organized and calm approach to studying, you need to make common sense and moderation a general life style during times of stress.

1. Moderate stimulants. Coffee, tea and Coca-Cola all contain caffeine and are relatively safe ways to help you stay awake. Pills, such as No-Doz, taken in recommended dosage, are fairly safe to help stay awake: they are concentrated caffeine equal to about one and a half cups of coffee. However, they are not recommended since sleep is more important for memory recall and an overdose may cause jitters and keep you from being able to sleep even if you want to.

2. Beware of taking drugs. This includes pills that were prescribed for other persons. Diet pills, for example, should be avoided, as it is possible to get an overdose of thyroid and a lethal dose of digitalis. ADD medicine will not work the same for people who are not diagnosed with ADD. Never take other people’s medicine!

Amphetamine preparations such as speed, Benzedrine and Dexedrine increase mental processes, but they can cause other bad effects. A student under the influence of amphetamines can cram and scan more information, but retention may be reduced.

Ten Traps of Studying

1. “I Don’t Know Where To Begin”

  • Take control - Make a list of all the things you have to do.

  • Break your workload down into manageable chunks. Prioritize!

  • Schedule your time realistically. Don’t skip classes near an exam or you may miss a review session.

  • Use that hour in between classes to review notes and interrupt study time with planned study breaks

  • Begin studying early, with three hours of study for every one hour in class two weeks before the exam and then increase study time as the exam approaches.

2. “I’ve Got So Much To Study…And So Little Time”

  • Preview - Survey your syllabus, reading material, and notes.

  • Identify and focus on the most important topics emphasized, and areas still not understood.

  • Adapt this method to your own style and study the material, but remember, previewing is not an effective substitute for reading.

3. “This Stuff Is So Dry, I Can’t Even Stay Awake Reading It”

  • Attack! Get actively involved with the text you read.

  • Ask yourself, “What is important to remember about this section?”

  • Take notes or underline key concepts. Discuss the material with others in your class and study together.

  • Stay on the offensive, especially with material you don’t find interesting, rather than reading passively and missing important points.

4. “I Read It. I Understand It. But I Just Can’t Get It To Sink In”

  • Elaborate - We remember best the things that are most meaningful to us.

  • As you are reading, try to elaborate upon new information with your own examples.

  • Try to integrate what you are studying with what you already know.

  • You will be able to remember new material better if you can link it to something that is already meaningful to you.

5. “I Guess I Understand It”

  • Test Yourself - Make up questions about key sections in notes or reading.

  • Keep in mind what the professor has stressed in the course.

  • Examine the relationships between concepts and sections.

  • Often, simply by changing section headings you can generate many effective questions.

  • For example, a section entitled “Bystander Apathy” can become: “What is bystander apathy?”, “What are the causes of bystander apathy?”, and “What are some examples of bystander apathy?”

6. “There’s Too Much To Remember”

  • Organize - Information is recalled easier if it is represented in an organized framework that will make retrieval more systematic.

  • Write chapter outlines or summaries; emphasize relationships between sections.

  • Group information into categories or hierarchies, where possible

  • Information Mapping - Draw up a matrix to organize and relate study material

For example, if you were trying to understand the causes of World War I, you could make a chart listing all the major countries involved across the top, and then list the important issues and events down the side. Next, in the boxes in between, you could describe the impact each issue had on each country to help you understand these complex historical developments.

7. “I Knew It A Minute Ago”

  • Review - After reading a section, try to recall the information contained in it.

  • Try answering the questions you made up for that section.

  • If you cannot recall enough, re-read portions you had trouble remembering.

  • The more time you spend studying, the more you tend to recall.

  • Even after the point where information can be perfectly recalled, further study makes the material less likely to be forgotten entirely.

  • In other words, you cannot over study.

  • However, how you organize and integrate new information is still more important than how much time you spend studying.

8. “But I Like To Study In Bed”

  • Context is crucial - Recall is better when study conditions (physical location, as well as mental, emotional, and physical state) are similar to the test conditions.

  • The greater the similarity between the study setting and the test setting, the greater the likelihood that material studied will be recalled during the test. Don’t make a relaxation area a study area!

9. “Cramming Before A Tests Helps Keep It Fresh In My Mind”

  • Spacing is essential – Start studying now! Keep studying as you go along.

  • Begin with three hours of study for every one hour in class two weeks before the exam and then increase study time as the exam approaches.

  • Recall increases as study time gets spread out over time.

10. “I’m Going To Stay Up All Night Until I Get This”

  • Avoid mental exhaustion - Take short breaks often when studying and rest your mind before a test.

  • When you take a study break, and just before you go to sleep at night, don’t think about academics.

  • Unwind mentally and physically so your breaks will refresh you and you can sleep well that night.

  • It’s more important than ever to take care of yourself before an exam!

  • Eat well, sleep, and get enough exercise.

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