Examination Stress Guide

This guide will help you manage your stress before and during an exam. Anyone who is taking classes can benefit from this advice.

You’ve just got the grade on your exam and it simply doesn’t reflect what you know you’re capable of…or all the hard work you put into your course!

Stress can cause you to make careless mistakes or forget things…or even make you have trouble seeing or reading. It can get so bad that you feel like the test paper in front of you is written in some alien language you don’t recognize. Unfortunately, the grade you get on an exam often reflects the way stress affects you, even though it should simply be an evaluation of how well you understand the course material.

Experiences like this are discouraging, even depressing. But what can you do?

As you’ll see in this guide, there aren’t 50 ways to pass an exam. You have to know how to manage your stress, and above all, you have to know how to study.

Stress and your examination

A number of studies suggest a close relationship between stress levels and success; all these studies basically arrive at the same conclusion:

Stress helps to improve our efficiency, but only up to a certain point. Once this point is reached, if stress continues to increase, the quality of our performance begins to decline.

Here’s a simple example. Imagine that someone is crossing the road when he hears a truck driver blowing the horn some distance away. He looks, speeds up, and quickly gets to the other side. The stress he experienced when he heard the horn had the effect of making him change his behaviour: he sped up.

Now let’s imagine that the truck is very near when the driver blows the horn – say, ten metres away. When he hears the horn, the man crossing the street may freeze in his tracks. His stress level is so high that he can’t move. We might say that his stress is so high that it keeps him from using all his resources and intelligence to cope with the situation, which may now appear to him to be “impossible to resolve.”

You may not see the connection between getting run over by a truck and failing an exam, so let’s take a look at how stress works in the exam room.

At the exam

This example explores various levels of increasing stress.
The night before the exam, you are ready for it. You understand all the material and can even explain it to someone else. You go to bed a little bit stressed (let’s call this level 1).

The next morning, you wake up and realize that the exam is in just two hours; now your stress is rising (level 2), but you still have a good grasp of the material. You are still in good shape for the exam. When you get to the college, you notice a couple of students talking about the subject, which stresses you a little more (level 3).

Surprise! All of a sudden you find out that you forgot to study something that is on the exam and your stress increases even more (level 4). You may even begin to feel a bit of panic. You look through your notes and you can’t find the section they’re talking about (level 5). No wonder you didn’t study it – you must have lost it! You have to go into the exam anyway. You walk down the hall and see the classroom door (level 6). You go inside and see several students frantically paging through their notes; the new level of stress in the room affects you (level 7). With your stress level continuously rising, you’ve just crossed the critical point where your ability to respond begins to decline.

The invigilator comes in and puts the exam papers on his desk (level 8); he goes back to the door, looks up and down the hall, and closes the door once more (level 9). He tells everyone to put away their books and notes and starts passing out the exams (level 10). You are having trouble seeing clearly, and now there’s the exam on your desk. You read the first question and realize it isn’t easy (level 11). You begin to crack under the stress and the other questions seem to be written in a foreign language. You are having a lot of trouble remembering the material. There are big gaps in your memory, you can’t concentrate, and your judgment is deserting you: you even erase the right answer and replace it with the wrong one.

This is how increased stress can transform a person who is well prepared to write an exam – a person who could even explain the exam material to someone who didn’t understand it – into a person who doesn’t seem to understand a thing, who doesn’t seem to have studied, and who therefore deserves to fail.

See how easy it is to fail an exam after studying so hard? It’s just a question of letting your stress grow and grow. Simple, isn’t it?

A few pointers for controlling stress

First of all, remember that we are always living with stress from the general environment or from events in our own lives. Family, emotions, money worries, health problems: lots of things can keep us in a state of more or less elevated stress that we may or may not be fully aware of. So we start out with a certain level of stress that the exam just adds to.

Depending on what is happening in your life, you go into an exam with an initial level of stress that may be high or low. The higher it is to begin with, the easier it is to pass the critical point when problems begin to arise.

There really aren’t any bad methods for shedding tension; it’s just that certain methods lend themselves more readily to particular times or places. Here are a few suggestions that can be used in the classroom.

A happy memory
It can be a very good idea to take a few moments during an exam to remember a pleasant time in the past, a time when you felt especially comfortable and relaxed.

The following method will help you “relive” a pleasant memory: Begin by evoking images of this memory at the exact time that you felt really good; in other words, picture in your mind the place you were. Then think about the sounds associated with this memory; finally, bring back any other sensations (relaxation, well-being) that you experienced at that time.

Take a minute right now to recall a good memory. Practising now will help you call it up more easily the next time you sit an exam.

A Lucky Rabbit’s Foot…
Other students like to bring something with them to the exam that they find comforting – a girlfriend’s picture, a lucky charm, a stuffed animal, and so on. There’s no point in judging this kind of thing. It doesn’t help to say it’s all superstition or childishness. The “talisman” doesn’t have to be in plain view on the desk. It can simply be slipped into a pocket. The important thing is that, for some students, it works; it helps relieve stress, just as recalling a happy memory does. So if it works for you, bring along your lucky talisman without worrying what anyone thinks about it!

Our brain is like a garden; we can plant and tend all sorts of beautiful thoughts in it, but some people let weeds sprout to such a degree that they literally crowd out the potential of their gardens.

If you practise thinking about the positive rather than the negative, your stress level will diminish and you will benefit in all areas of your life. Remember that a glass that is half-empty is also half-full and that an exam you pass, even barely, is one you never have to take again.

How to study and make sure your memory doesn’t desert you

The better you know the subject matter you are being tested on, the less likely that stress will be able to make you forget everything – which will lead to increased stress! But what can you do to reduce the risk even further?

First, you should know that there are two kinds of memory: short-term and long-term.

Short-term memory is what you use when you look up a phone number and remember it long enough to dial. This is not a number you especially want to memorize for a long time and so you put it into your short-term memory, which works something like a computer clipboard and is easily erased.

All someone has to do is to distract your attention for a second when you are about to dial and you’ll forget the number. Short-term memory is extremely sensitive to stress, surprise, and emotion.

Unfortunately, it is this short-term memory that lots of students use when they wait until just before the exam to cram. Many of them are surprised to find they forget “everything” or “almost everything” when they run across the first hard question. A word to the wise!

Fortunately, you also have long-term memory. This is the memory that permits you to remember your name, your father’s name, your address, and what your friends and spouse look like. It would take quite a shock to jar these memories loose!
Now take a couple of seconds. Call up an image of the front door to your house or apartment from the outside – yes, that’s right, the door to the place you live. Go ahead, try. Good. Now tell me: Is the door handle on the left or the right? What colour is the door? Is the lock in the handle or above, below or beside it? Are there any marks or stains on the door?

This image is stored in your long-term memory. What is surprising is that you never consciously tried to remember this information: it lodged in your brain without your being aware of it. Many people believe that they have to force themselves to learn theoretical material; they seem to have forgotten that they never sat down at their desks to “force” themselves to learn the route they take to get to college or their phone number, their friends’ names, or their own front door.

The more often you put information into your short-term memory, the more this information slips into your long-term memory, all without your even having to try to memorize it.

So here’s some good advice:

Look at the material that will be on the exam a number of times.

“Look at” means just that: look at it without really trying to memorize it. It’s simply a question of reading over the material, noting the main points, the subject headings, the few words you circled in your notes or the phrases you highlighted (the colours you used in your notes will jog your visual memory).

All this will help you internalize the information and reduce the chance that stress will make you forget important points. Of course, this method is not a substitute for other study techniques – you still have to put in hours of serious study. But this method will help you visually consolidate images of the subject matter in your memory.

And here’s the exam

The way you begin an exam is very important.

Many students tend to favour one of two approaches:

  1. Read through the entire paper and pick the easiest questions to answer first.
  2. Answer the questions in order without reading through all the questions first.

Both methods carry certain risks. This is why: if you cross your critical stress threshold, serious problems may crop up. You must take steps to ensure that your stress level does not increase!

Now let’s consider these two approaches more closely.

Suppose there are five questions on the test. The first question is easy and so is the second one; the third and the fourth are hard, and the fifth is easy.

1. Read through the entire paper and pick the easiest questions to answer first.

Question 1. easy
Question 2. easy
Question 3. hard
Question 4. hard
Question 5. easy

Surely you agree that reading the first two questions will not raise your level of stress because they are easy. On the other hand, when you get to Questions 3 and 4, the hard ones, up goes your stress level; it is possible that stress might make Question 5 seem more difficult than it really is. After reading the exam over, you are more stressed than you were, and when you go back to Question 1, you’ll find it harder than if you had answered it before reading the rest of the exam. This can trigger a real spiral of increasing stress: stress makes an easy question harder, which in turn increases your stress, which makes the next question even harder, and so on, until you are looking at an exam that seems to be written in a foreign language.

2. Answer the questions in order without reading through all the questions first.

While you are writing the first answer, time is passing and you do not know what lies in wait for you among the other questions; even an easy question that takes time to answer may stress you out. Even if you do get to the last question before time runs out, there is a strong chance that, because of the harder questions before it that upped your level of stress, you may not make as much sense as you could, especially if the question is worth 30 points and you’re afraid you won’t have enough time to completely finish.

And don’t forget that stress may give you the bright idea of changing some of your right answers into wrong ones!

So what’s the solution? Consider this: First, as soon as you have downloaded your exam, you can hide the questions and write down on paper the elements you may have difficulty retaining (like the eight ways of reproducing the third dimension). List these ideas quickly in bullet form, as a way of clearing and relaxing your mind. You don’t know yet if any of this is on the exam, but if it is, then you’ve got the elements written down (= reduced tension).

Now take five or ten minutes at the most, at the start of the exam, to read it through slowly and attentively, immediately jotting down in the margin parts of the answer in the form of keywords, notes, and so on.

As you read  Question 1, you note the principal elements as keywords in pencil in the margin so you don’t forget them and then go on to Question 2 (easy) and do the same thing. Question 3 is harder, but you can jot down some parts of the answer right away, without lingering too long (to avoid raising your stress level at the moment). Question 4 is really hard and you can only remember one thing about it: the answer has something to do with an example the professor gave and which you highlighted in your notes. So write “prof example, yellow highlight” in the margin. Don’t dwell on the answer but go on to Question 5 (an easy one) and write the outline of your answer in the margin.

Now you have partly answered about three and a half out of five questions
(= reduced tension). Go back to Question 3 and spend some time trying to dredge up some other parts of an answer; then do the same for Question 4.

After ten minutes at the most, you should be looking at the best part of your answers (= reduced tension). All you have to do now is write up your answers, beginning with number one, with the help of the marginal notes and keywords you wrote down. Since your stress level is low, it is possible that your memory will “return” for the questions you blanked on (= reduced tension).


This is the basic idea you need to retain: You can control your stress.

Remember, too, that it is important to learn how to relax and lead a balanced life (work, play, food, sleep, exercise, socializing, and so on). The more relaxed you are in general, the lower your initial stress level, and the lower your risk of having stress-related problems on your examinations.

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