UBC experts offer tips on preparing your brain and body for exam season
Patty Hambler and Kari Marken, student services professionals who specialize in wellness and learning, say that success during exam season is not just about knowing your course content, but also understanding your body and mind.
What are some of the major causes of stress during exam time?
Patty Hambler: Academics are a big source of stress for students because they often get fixed on an idea that a grade defines who they are. They tell themselves things like ‘If I don’t do well on my math exam, I’ll be letting my parents down,’ or ‘if I get a C in this course, I’m a failure,’ or ‘I’m bad at math.’
Kari Marken: People with a fixed mindset find that they talk about themselves in statements like ‘I am good/bad’ or ‘I am stupid/smart.’ Replace those thoughts with growth-oriented statements simply by asking questions. Instead of saying ‘I failed my math midterm, I am bad at math’ try ‘I failed my math midterm. Why am I struggling with math?’ Students who do this are more likely to ask for help, go to a professor, or even call home and seek support.
So what happens when an exam doesn’t go well?
Hambler: It is so important to build resilience because you’re rarely writing just one exam; it’s an exam season. If you don’t do as well as you hoped on an exam, it can impact your ability to properly prepare for your next exams. When you have these fixed statements going through your head, it can be more challenging to pick yourself up and go on to the next thing. That’s why you need to develop strategies to process failure differently.
Marken: There are ways to trick your brain to keep going. Instead of hitting the books right away, take a break and re-charge your mind with feel-good endorphins. Go for a run, or call a friend and tell them you are upset, or walk down to the water and re-connect with nature and breath. Preparing your body and mind for the next wave of intense academic pressure might just result in a better grade. Don’t see these activities as somehow separate from studying. Then shift gears, hit the books and at the same time start rehearsing for the next exam.
What advice do you have for actually writing the exam?
Marken: When I ask a student ‘why did you get a lower grade than you’d hoped for?’ they tell me they couldn’t remember the information and didn’t have all the answers. When I ask them ‘what are some other reasons?’ their responses have little to do with content: they were anxious, ran out of time, didn’t realize they wouldn’t be able to go to the bathroom, had a cold, the guy sitting behind them was sniffling and distracting. The experience of writing the exam can impact your grade.
Each exam environment is different. In planning for exams, desensitize yourself to the environment. As much as possible recreate the physical space conditions that you’ll be writing in. If you are writing in a big gymnasium, sitting in a hard chair and can’t leave the room to go to the washroom, then study in those conditions. Don’t lie on your bed and take lots of breaks to get snacks and go to the washroom. This will help desensitize you to the conditions of the exam and there is a smaller chance that your environment will trigger anxiety.
What are some of the key ways to prepare yourself physically for exam season?
Hambler: We still think exams are about preparing the brain: you learn course content and then write the exam. There can be a mind-body disconnect. Sleep is the number one thing your brain needs to process what it is learning. Studies have shown that students who get a good night’s sleep instead of cramming all night perform better. Sleep is connected to your ability to recall information and do higher-level thinking and problem solving. It is just as important to prepare your body for recalling information during exams as it is to know the course information.