Exams are a really testing time - for students and parents
AS thousands sit down to begin their Leaving Certificate examinations this week, two Offaly-based psychologists have shared some tips designed to help the students - and their parents - get through the testing times.
Chartered clinical psychologists Imelda Ferguson and Julie O'Flaherty, who write a fortnightly column for the Midland Tribune and Tullamore Tribune, say that though some students are opting for predicted grades in selected subjects, thereby avoiding the sit-down examination, many more have chosen to complete the papers as well and are now facing into one of the most stressful periods of their lives.
The psychologists say: "Very few would disagree that the past year and a half has been a hugely challenging one for senior cycle students as they have missed significant periods of face-to-face teaching and the experience of school has been very different.
"Added to this is the fact that the past few weeks before exams have been an especially stressful time for students as well as for their parents and families.
"As psychologists, we are often asked for tips about how to manage the stress so that it does not become overwhelming. So in this article, we will summarise some psychological tips to help students and parents survive exam time and keep their sanity intact!"
Tips for students
- Try to study in “bite-sized” chunks, taking a short break around every 40 minutes (our natural concentration span does not allow us to study productively for lengthy unbroken periods). For some students, taking short breaks around every 20-25 minutes may be preferable.
- Use your best time of day most, so ask yourself whether you are an “owl” or a “lark”. If you are more alert and productive early in the day, then focus most of your studying earlier in the day, rather than forcing yourself to study late in the evening. And of course the reverse applies, if you tend to be groggy in the mornings but come to life in the afternoon and evening, then play to your strengths by studying more later in the day.
- Resist the temptation to use caffeine or other substances to keep you alert for longer. Caffeine is a stimulant which gives you a brief lift, but actually increases the likelihood that you will feel edgy and anxious. Too much caffeine interferes with a good night’s sleep which you need for memory and concentration.
- Try to get some vigorous exercise a few times each week (or even once a day) while you are studying and doing exams. Any form of aerobic exercise, such as going for a run, or a brisk walk or cycle helps to get rid of the unhelpful stress chemicals. This also helps you get a better night’s sleep.
- Build in some time to relax by doing something you enjoy as a break from studying. Rather than being a waste of time, having regular relaxing breaks actually helps your mental sharpness and concentration. Some students may like to practise formal relaxation exercises or meditation. We like apps such as Headspace or Insight Timer which give lots of options for guided meditations for relaxation. And don’t worry if you don’t feel really relaxed straight away. Just listen to the guiding voice or sounds and focus on breathing deeply which is very good for you when you feel anxious or stressed.
- Remember that it is very normal to experience anxiety and stress around exam time. If you find that you are experiencing many negative thoughts, for example “I am going to fail”, tell yourself that these are just thoughts, take a deep breath and bring your attention to a more helpful thought. There is no predictive relationship between anxious thoughts and how you will perform in exams so try not to take those thoughts too seriously!
- Try to keep things in perspective. Remember that exams are just exams, they do not define you as a person. The exams you are sitting now will not seem nearly so important in a few years from now as you move on with your life. Even if you don’t do as well as you would like overall, it’s not the end of the world. There really are many routes and paths into a fulfilling career.
- Be kind and compassionate towards yourself. Remember you have come through a very tough time since the start of the pandemic, so try to ensure that your internal self-talk is kind and understanding.
A few tips for parents of exam students
- Try to ensure that your son or daughter eats regularly and healthily at this time. Make sure they have plenty of healthy snacks.
- Try to encourage other family members to be supportive around exam time. So, keep noise levels low where possible and explain that the student may seem irritable and others may need to be patient and understanding.
- Be positive and encouraging. Do not criticise your son or daughter even if you are inwardly concerned that they have not done enough study. Don’t compare them to anyone else and try not to let your own anxieties or memories of exams colour your feedback. Give them reassurance that it is normal to feel anxious and reduce pressure by keeping things in perspective.
- Pay attention to your own self-care and treat yourself with kindness and compassion. We can better support our sons and daughters when we are taking care of ourselves especially during these challenging times.
Finally, best of luck to all exam students from Imelda and Julie.
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