By J. J. Tecce Boston College firstname.lastname@example.org April 15, 1998
Stress is experienced when an event occurs that can be harmful. It is caused by unpredictability and a feeling of loss of control. Final exams produce unpredictability by the unexpected nature of exam questions, and of course, students typically have absolutely no control over what questions will appear on exams.
One way to incorporate predictability into your life during final exams is to outline your activities for the day. In this way, you have already taken some control over what will happen that day. This is the magic of preparation. You make plans and you already have a road map that buffers the angst of uncertainty. If your aims are realistic, at the end of the day you will likely have met some or all of these goals and will have a sense of achievement. And what will happen to your stress level? It will be lowered. Accomplishment and success will reduce stress every time.
As for the unpredictability of exam questions, the best way to gain control over them is to learn the course material so well that it doesn't matter what questions are asked. But mastery of course information isn't enough. In order to learn the material and retrieve it successfully during an exam, it is important to have a clear mind and a satisfactory energy level.
One way to have a clear mind and good energy level is to establish a rhythm -- a routinethat helps the body prepare for physical or mental demands. Rhythms provide predictability and, therefore, reduce stress. In the ideal situation, the body knows when it will be given a rest and the mind knows when it will be given time off to recuperate from heavy-duty information input or difficult problem solving. All of this helps the mind remain clear for taking a final exam. For example, by going to sleep at the same time each night, the body basks in its own rhythm and sleep will be deep and have a restorative effect. And the result will be resurgence of the vital energies so essential for intense study the next day. By contrast, going to sleep at different hours prevents the body from going into the type of deep sleep needed for restoration of energy. The result is a hangover of fatigue the next day. In short, it can backfire to expose the body to irregularities in sleep habits, since the inevitable fatigue from sleep deprivation will interfere with studying.
Another useful rhythm is eating. A body that "knows" when it will be fed is a happy body that can nourish the brain and support crisp mental activity. In addition to this food routine, it is important to choose the right foods -- those that aid mental functioning. Here we have a food-mood connection. If you are overly tense and nervous, eat carbohydrates (such as bread, crackers, muffins, pasta, potatoes, rice, and dry cereals). They will relax you. If you do not feel alert, eat proteins (such as chicken without the skin, fish, lean beef, veal, tofu, beans, lentils, grains, whole grain breads, yogurt, and milk). They will have an alerting effect. You can see that both eating in a timely way and eating the right foods will have a positive impact on studying.
A third rhythm involves periodic time-outs. Once in a while, taking a break from studying and doing something different -- either a physical or psychological activity --can lead to a refreshed attitude toward work. Physical activity, such as going for a walk,is particularly good for releasing built-up tensions and has the added bonus of deepening sleep for the restorative effect that was discussed earlier.
Part of the rhythm process should be psychological time-outs. Psychological displacement activities, such as meditating, chatting with friends, or watching a movie,are useful breaks when studying becomes a drag. There are two caveats here. The break should not be too long or the momentum of studying will be lost. Second, avoid highly emotional activities, such as a horror film, since they will disrupt your learning set and will interfere with retention of what you already have studied. The same goes for having an intense argument or fight with a roommate or best friend.
Here's the choice for students. Spend energy on keeping track of irregularities in life style, or get into a rhythm and let nature do the signal calling. When nature takes over the role of maintaining rhythms, you are free to apply your energies to higher-level functions, such as studying. Meditation is especially effective in clearing the mind and in providing an energy boost. For example, over the past twenty years or so, students in my classes at BC have practiced a relaxation technique called "distraction-meditation". By doing this relaxation each week in class, students develop a highly overlearned habit that provides powerful rest and stress reduction when needed. The positive effects during the final exam period can be extraordinary.
In distraction-meditation, thoughts and feelings that have been actively suppressed areallowed to enter awareness freely and randomly. By being experienced during the deeply relaxing state of meditation, these thoughts and feelings lose their emotional punch and,therefore, are unlikely to be disruptive during studying. In this way, distraction-meditation provides relief from potentially bothersome thoughts and feelings and allows attention to be focused entirely on studying.
Finally, the incremental approach to studying is useful in reducing stress. There is nothing worse than the overwhelming feeling that a gigantic amount of study material is waiting for you. Nutritionists herald the method of eating smaller rather than larger portions. Similarly, breaking up assigned material into small blocks facilitates learning and provides a satisfying closure at the end of each module. If you try to eat an entire sandwich in one gulp, you might choke to death. And so if you try to study too much all at once, you won't "digest" the material very well. You might even reward yourself after finishing a substantive block of material, such as with a little break, so that there is something positive to look forward to after hard work -- a tiny pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Perhaps the most powerful stress reducer in studying for final exams is to adopt a positive attitude. If exams are perceived as a drag and a source of anxiety and failure,then apprehension will accompany every effort to study for them and to take them. Exams are best viewed as a challenge that can be met successfully and as a stepping-stone for achievement. The anticipation of feeling on top of your game and boosting self-esteem (not to mention receiving accolades from mom, dad, and friends), will make success outweigh the fear of failure. With this totally positive outlook, the game then begins -- to learn, to achieve, and to succeed. And remember -- intelligence may be in your head, but exam success is in your hands.