5 top tips to stop exam anxiety

Nov 4, 2020Anxiety

5 top tips to stop exam anxiety

If you are developing an emotional soup of anxiety prior to an exam, stop!

You can get through this, but you just haven’t learnt how yet.

This is the fourth of five parts of my mini-series about passing an exam.

Passing the exam: beginning the journey

Passing an exam: 3 things I learnt

Test Anxiety: a journey through research

In this blog, I will give you 5 tips for passing an exam. Many of these tips I have discovered on my own learning journey so you will get my own perspective on what has worked for me and could also be your solution.

Lets me tell you a few stories…

Tests, exams and assignments made me feel anxious. This is how I discovered to overcome that anxiety.

A long time ago when I first studied for a diploma in nursing I was scared of tests and exams. It seemed to be a build-up of anxiety that got worse as I approached the assessment time. I didn’t really understand what I was feeling all those years ago.

I had no idea how to study so I just copied chapters out of books and hoped that I could remember the work. That took ages. I was spending so much more time on studying that anyone would believe.

I realised that getting an academic qualification would help my progress as a nurse so I was motivated to study for long hours like this. I suppose that did help because I did pass.

What an amazing sense of achievement that gave me!

But I soon found that I was developing quite an inquisitive mind by asking more questions. This meant that I needed to study further to get the answers. I didn’t want to study more but I did like that feeling of finding things out and putting all the pieces together.

Later I decided to study a BSc (Hons) in nursing. I still had no idea how to study although we had little tests and we did look at past papers. That helped but I still wrote out lots of notes and used a lot of paper and ink! I knew that by going through information in a systematic way I learnt more.

By this time I wasn’t writing out whole chapters so things were getting a little easier because I wasn’t spending so much time on writing. I suppose I was learning about my studying style.

I still felt scared of tests and exams.

Sometimes I would worry a lot. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep very well but I felt I had to do it. I was going through a difficult time in my life with two small children, promotion and a sick husband but I still wanted to do this. It was hard, no really hard!

And the harder I tried, the harder it seemed.

I wonder now why I didn’t give up then, but I think it was about proving something to myself that I could do it. I had no time for myself.

I did learn more and I really enjoyed what I was learning. I pushed myself to continue. I remembered that sense of achievement from before. I passed.

Part of being a professional nurse means continually updating yourself so I still kept studying.

Fast forward a few years. The university was advertising for a new masters degree in interprofessional health and community care. People kept suggesting that I should do it and a good friend also decided to do the course.  I kept thinking about it and realised that this subject would be so interesting. I was hooked and signed up.

Money was tight to pay for it but I was able to self-fund the course. I think I paid in instalments. I looked for the benefits of doing a course like this. There did seem to be lots of benefits, and I knew that this course would also help my career.

I was motivated to do it but still struggled with studying. What did they want anyway? Reading the assignment questions properly was a huge thing to learn.

I discovered that the keywords and verbs in an assignment title are important so I highlighted them to make them jump out on the page.

I met some wonderful people on this course. The subject was interesting and we all worked together to find the answers to the assignments.

I felt I had good support. One tutor was particularly good at helping me with academic writing. I realised the value of good tutors and those that go that extra mile to help.

The piles of study material continued to mount up. By now I had years of folders and written notes.

But as I relaxed and focused on the exciting knowledge and skills I was collecting my note-taking changed.

I no longer wrote out chapters or made hundreds of pages of notes. I learnt about study systems.

I used coloured highlighter pens. I used index cards for my research.

I even learnt a lot more about different computer programmes that could help with my studying. I was moving house anyway so I couldn’t have any more unnecessary paperwork.

I learnt the importance of backing up work on my computer. (Something that most young people who have been brought up with computers might think was common sense!).

I learnt to ask for help when I needed it, either from peers or tutors. This reduced my anxiety. I wasn’t alone anymore.

I found that studying is unique. Different methods of studying work for different people.

I also studied hypnotherapy, counselling and coaching.

My study techniques changed as the times changed. I use apps and highly value the interaction with other classmates. We use chat rooms and find all sorts of ways to communicate regularly.

Today I have a masters degree in hypnosis in research, medicine and clinical practice. And that’s not the end of the academic story! Now I’m doing a distance learning course- MSc Psychology!

Along my journey, I learnt that there are many people who were like me- anxious about studying and doing tests and exams.

I still don’t love any form of assessment but I have learnt lots of ways to stop the anxiety taking over.

Today I also pass on that passion I have for learning by teaching and supervising others.

Here are my 5 tips.

1. Get the ‘I can’ attitude

Lots of people talk about getting a positive mindset. This is about knowing want you want in a positive way. But how can you feel positive when you are worrying about something?

If you learn about positive psychology you will find out that getting a positive mindset and having a good life is about flourishing, flow, your strengths and virtues, and feeling happy. So there is some science behind positive feelings that come from that ‘I can’ attitude.

Let me tell you how I have changed my mindset and developed a positive outlook.

When I think too much about an assignment at university I start to worry about how much I don’t know. Then I begin reading. I read a lot.

I often write notes as well. But sometimes I still get that pesky mind monkey telling me that I can’t do it. That makes me feel worse. So I worry more and then believe more that I can’t do it. Is this you?

So here is what I do. I first identify what I’m doing to myself by noticing the negative talk that goes on in my head. Next, I do some deep breathing. If that doesn’t help I pack all my studying away and go and do something completely different. This might mean watching a film on the TV, having a laugh with friends or something completely different from studying.

I also repeat to myself that I can do it.

I am a very positive person so I don’t let the negative thinking get to me so much anymore.

2. Consider your health and wellbeing

Over the years I found that when I looked after myself things were much easier and I didn’t get so anxious.  So…

  • Get enough sleep
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Exercise
  • Socialise

3. Make a plan

When I first started studying I didn’t have a plan. I just copied chapters from books. Now I write a list. I prioritise. I use visual cues such as flip charts and highlighter pens.

There are also apps now that help you develop a plan and schedule.

But the most important thing about a plan is to start early and check dates of deadlines.

These things help:

  • Lists
  • Calendars
  • Computer scheduling

4. Practice

This is about developing a habit of reading and learning.

For me continual practice most days works. I do best in the morning being in a room on my own.

Some people like background music to study. There is some evidence that music can help but I don’t. I find music a distraction.

Other people find that they are better at studying in the evening. It’s about understanding your body clock.

I learnt that you can find past papers online as well as ask your tutor. There is so much online now that you can never struggle with an answer.

I also found that discussions and practice with my peers was my best way to practice.

5. Work with others

During my long journey of studying, I have learnt the value of working with others many times.

As I reflect on the people that have helped me I realise that the number of people who have helped is huge.

I found that other people help to stimulate another perspective on a subject.

For me the people with IT skills are lifesavers as I get a bit nervous about trying new apps or systems. I know that I always get there in the end and it takes time. But they give me the courage and the ability to go on.

Listeners are great. Sometimes I just need to talk things out aloud. If peers listen they know what I am talking about whereas friends and family don’t. So thank you to all those study buddies!

If you get stuck and can’t understand something even though the teacher may have explained it and you have read the books remember that others on the course can help.

Finally, if you are still very anxious about studying, and assessments get professional help.

I’m Linda from Awaken the Change. I help you reduce your anxiety and worry and find techniques that can help. I work online and face to face in Bournemouth when there is no lockdown. Alternately listen to a hypnosis recording. Find out more and contact me through Awakenthechange.com 



Awaken the Change is about Focusing Minds for Positive Results

Awaken the Change is a self-help service providing education and information.

Linda sees clients at her practice in Bournemouth, in the UK. She is also happy to provide online help via webcam for hypnotherapy, counselling and supervision. Counselling and supervision can also be provided by telephone.

Linda is an accredited trainer and supervisor.

Linda Witchell
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