“Know your enemy, know yourself and win a hundred battles” is a famous quote from The Art of War by Sun Wu, an ancient Chinese military strategist. This can also be applied to exam stress, and the first step is to identify the problem.
Students can get panic attacks and anxiety, preventing them from getting on with anything. “One of the key things to do with stress is the feeling that you don’t have any control,” says Dr Carolyn Axtell, a lecturer from the Institute of Work Psychology, the University of Sheffield.
“Students start to feel immobilised. They feel that they can’t cope with the situation while there are so many things going on. That’s when stress tends to be at the highest level.” Stress takes up cognitive resources, leaving you with less energy to function effectively.
“A certain level of stress is good because it can help to motivate you and mobilise you into action,” she says. “You’ve got a bit of adrenaline and feel more cognitively alert, but it can be problematic when it starts to get beyond the point where it’s useful.”
Some people, however, look at it in a different way, the lecturer explains. “Instead of thinking about it as a stressful thing, they think about it as a learning experience. Change how you think about things. Think about positive things and you might find it less stressful.”
DIVIDE AND CONQUER
With Sun Wu’s teaching in mind, the popular strategy ‘divide and conquer’ - adopted by Roman ruler Julius Caesar and French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte – can be used.
The key to deal with exam stress is to regain control, and to make it easier. Dr Axtell says, “Breaking things down into manageable chunks can really help. If you look at the whole thing you have to do, you will see it’s large and overwhelming.”
Dr Axtell recommends that an easy way to divide and control is to make a timetable for revision. She does warn, however, that students should be realistic because they might not be able to cover everything.
WIN THE WAR
To make sure that you get through the exams, you must take action. When it comes to revision, it is useful to write things down. Dr Axtell says: “Don’t try to memorise everything. Writing it down can help you process and solidify things in your head. Some people like to do spider diagrams, other people like boxes and arrows or lists. You have to choose what suits you best.”
You cannot win a battle without good preparation and practice, and the same applies to exams. Doing mock exams and exercises can help conquer anxiety. The lecturer says: “Exams are scary for students because you don’t know what you will get. Have a look at past exam papers to get an idea about things that might come up.
Think how you are going to answer the questions. That can really help to make things less scary. Be prepared as much as you can. That can give you a lot of confidence that you can do it. You will feel less likely to be stressed and anxious.”
She says another problem is with our own thoughts. “Sometimes you feel very negative, probably more negative than you should do. Try to step back sometimes. Maybe you might not do it as good as you thought. See what you need to improve and then try again.”
Stress doesn’t go away, but we can manage it. “Everyone is going to feel stressed and anxious but it’s inevitable,” Dr Axtell concludes. “You just need to keep it in manageable level. Being organised and taking control of the situation as much as you can be.” Victory is then yours.