Exam advice: Stay calm, be confident and study

With the State examinations  just three weeks away, students all over the country are feverishly revising. But good preparation is about far more than passive study. Áilín Quinlan talks to two experts about  the psychological, emotional and academic preparation required to be truly exam-ready

Performance psychologist Ben Bernstein works with all kinds of people; surgeons, athletes, high-level corporate executives, actors — and students.

Exam advice: Stay calm, be confident and study

No matter what age you are or what you happen to do in life, he says, the same three ‘pillars’ always apply to a successful outcome – calm, confidence and focus And being able to recognise and respond to signs that you’ve ‘disconnected’ — in other words knowing what to do when you’re not calm, confident and focused — is critical to any successful performance, whether it’s a written exam or a big public presentation, explains Dr Bernstein (below right).

Our performance is affected when we ‘disconnect’ or ‘freeze.’ This can happen physically, such as when we nervously hold our breath or breathe shallowly, psychologically when we entertain doubts about ourselves or emotionally, for example when we become anxious or distracted.

Once this happens we simply cease to function effectively.

An author, psychologist, teacher, and performance coach whose career has spanned 40 years, Dr Bernstein has spent 20 of them teaching teenagers how to maintain calm, confidence and focus.

But, he warns, his techniques are no magic pill. They must be practised – and with some three weeks to go before the State exams begin on June 8, there’s still time to practise.

“These techniques work. The teenagers I’ve worked with have found these tools useful, in studying and taking tests — and also for playing sports, giving stage performances or presenting in front of a group.

“I’ve been teaching these techniques to adolescents for 20 years and they’ve proved successful time after time.

“The key is to practise – not to see these tools as a magic wand. It’s all about the practise. “

  • Stressed Out for Teens; How To Be Calm, Confident and Focused. Dr Ben Bernstein. Published by Familius €16

How to Stay Calm

(1) Recognise that you’ve become stressed (2) Become aware of your breath.

  • Practise regulating your breath by bringing it under conscious control. Breathe through the belly — you know you’re doing it right when you inhale and feel your belly expand.
  • When you don’t breathe deeply, Dr Bernstein explains, your nervous system goes into alert, your brain gets ‘danger’ signals, and you ‘rev up’ and become disconnected from what you need to be calmly focusing on.
  • “When you take an exam and are nervous,” he explains, “you must stay very connected to what you are doing.” Deep breathing helps us both re-connect and stay connected.
  • Ground Yourself: Focus on your environment. Allow yourself to feel the ground under your feet. Feel the floor supporting your feet. Feel the chair on which you are sitting. Feel your whole body being supported by the floor and the chair.
  • (Let go of physical tension. Allow it to flow out of you and into the ground. Try tightly clenching an object in your hand – squeeze and release, relaxing your hand muscles and allowing the object to drop to the floor. Feel a wave of calm pass through your body.

How to Stay Confident

  • Recognise when you’re starting to think or say something negative about yourself. Practise these three steps:
  • Confide: Practise imagining a positive image of yourself. Tell that confident image that you feel you can’t do something.
  • Reflect: See the confident image of yourself reflect back something accurate and positive. “Yes you can do this – I’ve seen you do it before.”
  • Envision: Envision the small manageable steps you need to follow to regain your confidence: Breathe, Ground Yourself and Focus on what you need to do.
  • To stay focused recognise that you have become distracted. Ask yourself whether this behaviour is taking you to your goal? Stop doing it.
  • Listen to the inner voice that knows that you need to return your focus to the matter that needs your attention
  • Fulfil what the voice is telling you.

How To Remain Focused During Study

  • Have a goal for each study period. What are you going to accomplish during this study session? What action will you take to achieve that goal?
  • Study in 30 minute ‘time-chunks’ “Sometimes we study too long. We become tired and our effectiveness goes down,” says Dr Bernstein, who recommends ‘chunking’ study time into 30-minute sessions:
  • “Study for 30 minutes, take a two-minute break and return to study for another 30 minutes. Then take another two or three minute break, followed by another 30 minute session.
  • “Now take a longer break, of about 20 minutes, get up and move around.”

How to Maintain Focus During an Exam

The Wedge Exercise Do this exercise every 20 minutes during your examination:

1. As you exhale, close your eyes and let them rest.

2. Feel the breath go down the front of your body and into the floor.

3. Now breathe in, feeling the breath coming up the back of your body and up to the top of your head.

4. When it reaches the top of your head, open your eyes.

This exercises gives a slight pause — a “wedge” — in the ongoing momentum of the exam, explains Dr Bernstein.

“It provides an opportunity for the student to breathe and ground, and it adds one more essential step for staying calm: resting the eyes.

Exam advice: Stay calm, be confident and study

“Our eyes are hardwired to our nervous system. When we put too much strain on our eyes (from reading without pausing) we become fatigued.

“Giving our eyes a very short periodic rest by using “The Wedge” keeps us refreshed,” he says, adding that although students may feel that The Wedge will take too much time away from the exam, it can actually be completed in a matter of seconds.

Three-week Exam Revision Countdown with Betty McLaughlin, President of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors:

Exam advice: Stay calm, be confident and study

Three Weeks

  • Don’t study subjects in large blocks of two to three hours — divide your evening into 30-minute study ‘blocks’ on each subject. Double that time to one hour for a different subject each night.
  • Practise questions from past exam papers every night. Become completely familiar with the layout of the exam papers — it makes you more confident and better able to manage the papers on the big day. Refer to the State Exams Commission website to check for marking schemes and answers. This will give you a good insight into what is being examined and where the marks are going After every 30-minute study session take a few minute’s break in the fresh air. Move around. Drink a glass of water. Avoid sugary drinks and tea or coffee which may dehydrate you.
  • Attend all classes. It’s not a good idea to skip classes. “The teachers will be revising topics which they feel are important,” says McLaughlin (below left).
  • “They are the professionals and are the ones best-placed to guide your study. “The Leaving Cert system does not lend itself to self-directed learning, and it’s best to study with the teacher’s guidance.”

Two Weeks

  • Classes for Leaving Cert students will generally end about May 25 or 25. Choose a quiet place where you are comfortable and where your study will not be interrupted.
  • Draw up a study plan for the next two weeks. The plan should be realistic and achievable – it should stretch you but not stress you.
  • Once classes end for the year, increase the 30 minutes previously allocated to each subject to one-hour study blocks per subject. Continue to take regular health breaks.
  • Rotate the order of the subjects so that you stay on top of every subject. Study subjects at different times each day to ensure each gets equal attention. Avoid studying subjects for two- to three-hour blocks
  • Practise, practise, practise all those test papers. Look over the test papers from your Mock examinations and see what areas you could improve on

One Week

  • Know your exam timetable, the sequence of exams and how they’re spread out.
  • Prioritise your subjects and allocate time to revising each subject area.
  • Active revision is crucial now. Test yourself. Correct, assess and evaluate your work. Take active notes. Prepare memory cards on each subject.
  • Avoid learning new material now.
  • “Taking on something new, like learning a new poem is not advisable. This time is about consolidating what you have learned,” says McLaughlin.
  • Practise your exam technique. Evaluate your time management:
  • “Lots of marks are lost on poor time management every year, so ensure that you practise how to get the right information, in the right format, in the allocated time frame,” says McLaughlin.
  • This is particularly important in information-heavy subjects such as English, history, accounting, design communication graphics, she says.

Stay calm

  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Stick to your normal routine, starting your revision around the same time that you will be starting your exams.
  • Do NOT get up earlier than usual on the morning of an exam. This is very counter-productive as tiredness will impact on your memory, concentration and ability to comprehend what you’re being asked.

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