PREPARING FOR EXAMS: MAKING THE MOST OF YOUR REVISION TIME

What can you do to manage your inner world and maintain a more balanced approach?

“If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient attention than to any other talent.” (Isaac Newton)

Having the capacity for focused attention is what most students want when preparing for exams. However, with so much material covered during the academic year it can be challenging to review it all in a few weeks prior to the exams.
Do you get thoughts about failing your exams, or when in an exam feeling as if your mind is about to freeze and cannot remember anything?  Usually these thoughts tend to be when the exams are perceived as threatening, and feeling unsure about being able to do well. Revising for exams can be a challenging time as most feel there is a lot at stake. Most students feel some degree of tension and worry when anticipating the challenge of taking exams.

Although these thoughts may trigger tension and nervousness you can train yourself to focus your attention and be productive. Each person has a unique way of dealing with challenges, therefore you may find different things helpful to what others do to revise.

Perhaps you notice that your mood fluctuates depending on how you feel your revision is going. If you understand the topic, and can remember key concepts, you are likely to feel better about your progress.

Reviewing the modules covered in the Autumn term may be more difficult  as you may not have seen the material since then. If you notice it is difficult to understand, and it is hard to remember much of the material, it is likely that it can have an impact on your confidence  to do well. These doubts are normal when studying, particularly when remembering the material is critical.

In addition, the exam period usually runs for a few weeks with some exams very close to each other. Revision, if not structured well can lead to difficulty in concentration, reduced motivation, and low productivity.

Create a study routine:
Preparing well for exams involves having effective study habits. These help to reduce tension and can have a more positive impact on your performance. Prepare mentally to view this period like a physical training routine. It requires repeated practice, having a regular routine and managing energy levels to be able to sustain your efforts.

Plan to revise each day. If you miss a day, get started soon as you can even if you only do 10 minutes, and continue revising the next day. Remind yourself that it is a challenge and that what counts is to keep going. Every time you get distracted or miss a study session always get back to your routine and continue. Maintaining your focus on making gradual progress will allow you to persevere with your efforts (Duckworth, 2016).

Create short study sessions and insert short breaks, then repeat (see Study Advice resources). After two or three sessions insert a longer break. Make it flexible enough so that you have time for lunch, dinner, social contact and housekeeping activities. This is to make sure you have time to look after yourself. You are your main resource. In addition, the flexibility will allow you to attend to other unforeseen events (e.g. family events, or not feeling well).

Creating habits:
Study habits are more effective than only having the intention of revising. Having the intention of doing something is a strong indicator that we are more likely to act. However, it is not sufficient. We need to turn it into a decision to act.

So, to strengthen your belief in your ability that you can follow through with your intentions and take action make repeated efforts. This then will strengthen your decision to act again making it a habit (Fishbain & Ajzen, 1975).

Prepare your mindset:
Let go of the perceived consequences of the test results. When under pressure there may be a tendency to anticipate future negative scenarios, but keep in mind that these are not facts. Instead, notice the physical reactions and acknowledge you are feeling tense, worried, nervous, or stressed. Then pause, breathe slowly (this will trigger the nervous system’s calming response) and stretch to ease the tension in your muscles. Then remind yourself that you are doing what you can each day.

You can keep track of what you do each day by making a note in a diary or notebook. So, after the exams, if some self-doubts were to appear, thoughts such as “I should have done more”, or “I didn’t do enough” you will be able to look back and remember the efforts you made during your revision.

Self-efficacy:
Build your confidence in your skills and ability to learn  (Bandura, 1977).  By practising making efforts regularly, and focusing on the progress you are making.  Having doubts t your academic abilities are normal as it means you are stretching beyond your comfort zone. Focus on your values – you are responsible and committed to your studies.

Decide to make continued efforts – consistently. Think about what you want to achieve. Describe the steps to take in detail so you can see yourself doing one task, followed by another, and another. Consider what you need to get started and for each step.

To boost your motivation to move forward imagine the feeling of having revised (after a day’s work), how does it feel? Remembering this feeling can energise you to act.

Viewing the task as difficult and challenging is likely to reduce the chances of acting. Instead, view the difficulties as challenges that you can deal with by breaking the task down into smaller steps. (Berkman, (2008). Take one step (no matter how small) that will lead towards your goal.  You can adapt to situations and habits reduce the difficulty of getting started because we have already made the decision to prioritise this task.

Practice noticing when thoughts prevent you from working effectively and take time to change your perspective by focusing on the progress you are making.

Being understanding of yourself and getting back to a task, without self-criticism, will build your confidence in your capacity to manage challenging moments.

Self-control:
Notice thoughts that distract you, such as when thinking “it’s too difficult”, or “I can’t do this”. Then pause, breathe and remind yourself of previous experiences when you faced obstacles and found a way to make progress.  If feeling stuck, review what you have done already to identify what one thing you could do different.

When dealing with challenges we tend to have tunnel vision, only focusing on the current problem and worrying about a possible negative future scenario. We tend to forget that we have faced difficulties before. You can look at what you have already learned from previous experiences. Give yourself credit for the work you have done so far.

Monitor your self-evaluation:
We tend to be very subjective and critical of our work (especially when worried about failing). Instead, take a step back and view your work as if it were that of a friend. What questions would you ask to help him/her find alternative solutions?

Instead of focusing on the grades you want or need to pass the module focus on what you have learned. All the effort you have put in throughout the year. Even if you have not been able to work as consistently as you would have wanted to focus on the present moment and decide to continue learning the material regularly.

Managing perfectionism and maintain motivation:
Sometimes it can be hard to get back to revision when we do not feel like doing the work. We tend to rely a lot on how we feel to decide what to do.

Emotions – from Latin “movere” means “to move” (Gollewitzer & Oettingen, 2015) .  Consider what are the things that move you to study? What do you want to achieve? The process of learning takes time so it will require repeated efforts to understand a topic, to then be able to remember it, and then apply it in a given context.

Having high standards can be a good motivator, provided the focus is on learning and when aiming for improvement. When these become the only objective that is pursued relentlessly it can cause significant distress and prevent learning. Perfectionism refers to the tendency to set high standards that are impossible to achieve without having a detrimental effect on health (Ben-Shahar, 2009)

Thoughts such as “If it isn’t perfect it is no good.”, or “No matter what I do it will be awful.” Having difficulty in tolerating imperfections and being highly self-critical prevent making progress with tasks. Sometimes these high standards are applied to how we feel, e.g. when thinking “I shouldn’t feel frustrated or down.”

Sometimes it can feel that things are not progressing well, or we wish we had done things differently. Looking back will only cause more tension, instead bring your attention to the present moment to start to turn things around.

To make progress and increase strengths strive for excellence where the focus is on developing a deeper understanding of the topics, and on improving skills. In addition, having a strong work ethic and discipline are essential characteristics that lead to reaching meaningful goals.

Strategies to improve memory:

Improving memory is not just about storing information, it is also having the ability to retrieve the information when required. The process of retrieving memories strengthens the neuropathways making it easier to recall when required. In order to be able to remember the material you are revising it is essential to pay attention to the content with the purpose of recalling it later.  Think about the meaning of the text and link it to material you already know.(Brown, et al, 2014).

Learning new material depends on the links we can make with prior knowledge.  Research indicates that to improve learning we need to practice elaboration : the process of giving meaning to new material and expressing our understanding in our own words. Seeing how it relates to what we already know.

Organise the material into categories so that related items are linked together. Creating mental models (representations of the content or an external reality) help us to make connections between the new concept with our previous experiences. The more associations you can make the more likely that these will allow to remember the material later (Brown, et al., 2014).

Next, create meaningful cues so that they serve as prompts to recall the material.  You can create question about the topics you are revising that you can use later to test yourself. Then, practise recalling the content at regular intervals as this will strengthen the connections over time (Baddeley, 2015).

Some tips to manage stress symptoms

1.Take regular breaks from your desk:
Go outdoors, stretch, move, walk. Now that the weather is nicer you can enjoy going for walks around the campus. This will be relaxing, and you may find that ideas flow more easily after the break.

2.Maintain healthy habits:
Keep hydrated, have regular healthy meals, and keep a regular bedtime pattern (not late nights as this will affect your sleep pattern). Exercising  will help to manage tension, and it will increase alertness, and doing relaxation exercises will contribute to relax your mind and body so that you can get a good night’s sleep be able.
You can listen to a guided meditation exercise or listen to soothing music.

3.Not comparing with others:
It is too distracting, and it can increase doubt and worry about whether you are doing enough, studying the right things, or wondering how can other appear to spend less time studying while you feel you must work so hard. Everyone is different and therefore will have a variety of ways of working that may not suit you. Identify what works for you and develop a study pattern that is possible to sustain over a period of time.

4.Develop self-compassion:
It is about taking care of yourselves, being understanding of our human condition.

It is having the ability to adopt a more realistic perspective and be kind to yourself as you would be with your best friend, take time to step back. Ask yourself: “How would a friend view the situation? What other ways are there to look at this?”. Look at the big picture: “What is the priority, what matters most?

Research indicates that when people are more understanding of themselves they tend to be more able to act because they recognise they can overcome setbacks (David, 2016).

“How we deal with our inner worlds drives our lives.” (Susan David)

Keep in mind that emotions are always present. By trying to suppress negative thoughts these tend to increase and become more intense, causing distraction and stress. Often, it is fear of failure that triggers highly self-critical thoughts (Ben-Shahar, 2009). When these occur view them as information that can help to prioritise tasks, for example ask, “what is this emotion telling me?”  The feeling is most likely reflecting that you care about your studies.

Practising mindfulness:

Discomfort is normal – studying is hard work, and exams are part of the educational process.

If we think that it should not be so hard then it can easily erode confidence and the determination to continue. Instead, when feeling tense notice the physical sensation and remind yourself that your body is working with you to summon the energy to focus on the task. The sensations are not evidence of negative outcomes.

Taking time to breathe slowly, being in a quiet space without distractions can ease the tension and enable learning to tolerate discomfort and uneasiness. It helps to gain perspective while you take care of yourself.

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to focus.” (Alexander Graham Bell)

“In my experience, if you keep working away and keep open to new approaches, you get there in the end.” (Richard Wiseman)

References:

Baddeley, A., Eysenck, M.W. & Anderson, M.C. (2015) Memory. London: Psychology Press.

Bandura, A. (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The pursuit of perfect. How to stop chasing perfection and start living a richer, happier life. New York: MacGraw-Hill Books.

Berkman, E.T. (2008) The Neuroscience of goals and behaviour change: Lessons learned from Consulting Psychology. Consulting Psychology Journal, 70, 28-44.

Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L. & McDaniel, M.A. (2014) Make it stick: The science of successsful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Press.

David, S. (2016) “Emotional agility. Get unstuck, embrace change, and thrive in work and life.” London: Penguin

Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverance. London: Vermillion.

Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, I. (1975). Belief, Attitude, Intention, and Behavior: An Introduction to Theory and Research. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Gollewitzer, P.M. & Oettingen, G. (2015) Psychology of Motivation and Actions. In Wright, J.D.(Ed) International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2nd Ed,, Vol.15. Oxford. pp.887-893.