I’ve watched more than my share of students have complete meltdowns during final exams, from not showing up for exams, forgetting about an exam, or even crying straight through the test. I know what’s going on, and I sympathize. I’ve been there, and I made many mistakes myself during exam weeks. I’m thinking in particular of my Art History final in 1988, which I took in a haze of exhaustion and alcohol fumes left over from the previous evening’s revels—and my exam results showed that. But I’m older and wiser now, and after learning the hard way, I can offer the following tips to students who may be feeling the pressure of impending exams:
1. Plan Ahead and Schedule: I tell my students that the biggest mistake they can make is to save all their studying until final exam week. Even though things are busy at the end of the semester, get a head start the last few weeks of classes to speak to your professors about their expectations, gather notes and study tips from classmates, round up all your materials, and set up an exam week schedule, including everything from the exams themselves to study breaks. The benefit of scheduling your whole week is that it gives you control, which lowers stress.
2. Use Your Technology: Cell phones offer many new apps that you can use to create study guides, flash cards and notes; remind yourself to take study breaks; memorize formulas; organize a virtual or face-to-face study group; sync your different electronic resources. Just remember that it is important to curb your social media activities during finals week, or you will be constantly distracted and unable to study effectively.
3. Don’t Drink, Sleep Around, or Party: It’s tempting, I know, to think that it’s a good idea to blow off some stress with a little bacchanalia. After all, there are only so many chemistry formulas one can memorize without wanting to indulge in some personal chemistry experiments of your own. In fact, one student at Cal Poly argues that because orgasm helps lower stress levels. She argues, “finals week stress can wait—go fornicate!” But this is a bad idea—one of the worst. Not because these are necessarily bad or immoral activities, but because stress can cause you to make bad decisions that you will regret. Do you really want to spend exam week hung over, filled with regret, or exhausted? It won’t help you do well, and that will make you worry even more.
4. Exercise and Eat Right: I know that dorms offer late night pizza study breaks, sundae bars, and many other temptations, but deviations from routine can really throw off your focus. Do you really want to deal with heartburn, tummy troubles, or other effects of overindulgence? It’s important to eat for energy rather than escape, which maintains even blood sugar. Also, try to avoid caffeine. Many students reach for the espresso and Red Bull at exam time, but the overall effect of caffeine is to increase your nervousness and keep you hyper-alert. This causes stress and fatigue. The Mayo Clinic reports that physical activity releases endorphins, your “brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters.” This will help you approach your exams in a better frame of mind.
5. Take a break: Go out, play Frisbee, have lunch with friends, schedule a massage, take a nap, watch a funny movie. Research shows that study breaks refresh not only your outlook, but also your critical thinking and retention skills. So go ahead and clock some more sack time, without guilt. Sleep is rejuvenating and provides the energy you need to push through intense periods of study. Laughter also releases endorphins and lowers stress. These are all elements of what psychologists call “self-care.” You are taking care of yourself by getting a college education, so take care of yourself in other ways, too.
If all of these tactics fail to relieve your stress, talk to a counselor. Most schools provide counseling centers where they often hold extended hours and provide extra staff during exams. Some schools even offer stress hotlines staffed by counselors or clinical psychologists or faculty during exam week. The most important thing to remember is that you have to take good care of yourself as part of your overall exam strategy!
Jill Rooney, Ph.D. is an Education Writer for OnlineColleges.net. She earned a Ph.D. in History from the University of New Hampshire and has taught History, Political Science, and Film Theory for over twenty years. Dr. Rooney’s work has been published by the Smithsonian Institution, Oxford University Press, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Her teaching experience has taught her that all students really just want one thing: To learn. And that isn't always easy, so she's here to help!