Tips to beat final exam stress


student studying for exams

Dec. 4, 2015

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Final exams. They are the crescendo to a semester of learning and oftentimes a student's greatest source of stress.

If you're one of those people who find themselves hyperventilating at the mere mention of exams, the first thing you need to do is to forget the picture the entertainment industry often paints of the harried student who hasn't attended class in awhile, who survives on coffee, doesn't sleep for days and then emerges triumphantly from their final, an A grade in place. That stuff only happens on TV.

In order to avoid what could be devastating anxiety from these annual knowledge reviews, experts say, it is important to approach them with a clear mind, a sound body and an understanding of how to deal with stressful situations in a positive fashion.

In many cases, exam stress is all in the mind, and mental discipline is a large part of what is needed to succeed.

"When I think about managing exam stress, the first thing that comes to mind is my mom's advice - plan blocks of study time and then stick to it," said Kristina Benkeser, director of student health services at Slippery Rock University. "As always, mom was right, even if why she was correct wasn't known to me at the time. Breaking down large blocks of data into manageable chunks allows information to move into long term memory in a sequential manner."

Another key is setting limitations on that study time in order to not push yourself past the point of retention. In other words, find a balance between books and breaks.

"I tell my students they should lean toward limiting their sitting to study time to 60-minute increments," said Randy Nichols, SRU professor of physical and health education. "At that point, take a 10-minute walk or exercise break to re-energize and bring back your focus and clarity."

"Exercise improves blood flow and unblocks the synapses," added Benkeser. "It's kind of like giving your brain a reboot. If your mind gets stuck on learning a concept, do 10 jumping jacks and try again."

A 2013 report published by the British Medical Journal showed that short bursts of exercise led to immediate boosts in concentration and mental focus.

"These results provide further evidence that doing a few minutes of exercise just before taking a test or giving a speech can improve performance," said John Ratey, a psychiatrist at Harvard University.

Over the long term, regular exercise is believed to boost a chemical called BDNF, which Ratey calls "Miracle-Gro for the brain," that's instrumental for the development of new nerve connections and tissue in areas of the brain responsible for higher reasoning. Slow and steady workouts several times a week also increase levels of 'feel good' brain chemicals such as serotonin to increase your energy and mood.

But what if exercise just isn't your thing?

"I tell students in my classes to take some time out to go and see a performance, whether it be on campus - such as a dance, concert, music performance, etc. - or off," said Nora Ambrosia, SRU professor of dance.

"It's all about forgetting about their workload for a while and doing something for themselves. Sometimes students feel that they do not have time to attend anything, but when they do, that time away relaxes them and they feel fulfilled. Then they realize that they can actually be more productive."

Another stress-busting study aid is the use of mnemonic rhymes for remembering strings of words, rendering the most obscure facts memorable. Think of mnemonics as an informational jingle.

Advertising agencies have long used rhyming jingles to make sure their product names stick in the heads of consumers, and teachers have been doing the same in elementary schools for decades. Remember when Columbus sailed to America? "In Fourteen-hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue."

"'On old Olympus treeless tops, a Finn and German brewed some hops,'" said Benkeser. "30 years later that's how I remember the cranial nerves. Now, if someone asked me to recite them minus the poem, it would probably take me awhile and I'm sure I'd be sure to forget one."

According to, the top 10 best ways to combat exam stress include many of those things mentioned by SRU faculty (exercise breaks, planning, giving your mind space), but also incorporate listening to classical music, playing with bubble wrap and/or puppies, getting enough sleep, eating dark chocolate and removing distractions - yes, that means smartphones and even friends and roomies that eat up your time.

Experts also advise that you skip the sugar, which will make you crash, and go for snacks like granola bars, healthy cereal or fruits and veggies to keep your blood sugar stable. And, be sure to eat some protein.

"The best thing I know for decreasing test anxiety though is for the student to be confident in their mastery of the course content," said Carol Martin-Elkins, chair of SRU's graduate school of physical therapy.

"Feeling that your performance all depends on what the instructor asks on the exam, since you feel there are things you still don't know or understand, is very stressful. Therefore, sometimes decreasing test anxiety means increasing study time and asking questions for clarification long before the exam begins."

The end of the term represents special hardships for faculty as well as students,

Robert Biswas-Diener, senior editor of the Noba Project said. "Reviewing papers, tests and group projects, and turning in grades and meeting with worried students can make instructors just as susceptible as students to feeling down, increasing their alcohol consumption, avoiding exercise and eating poorly."

Faculty members, experts say, need to follow the same prescription as students. "Exercising, eating properly, pacing yourself and minimizing contact with curmudgeons can help you stay psychologically and physical strong during the most hectic periods of the academic calendar," Biswas-Diener said.

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