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While studies have shown that hyper-stimulation – caused by stress, nervousness and pressure – can negatively affect an athlete’s performance, the same thing can happen to students while studying or taking an exam.

Whether you’re preparing for your college mid-terms, high school finals or SATs, stress can sometimes cause even the best students to “choke” under pressure. Some top-notch students excel in their Advanced Placement classes, but paradoxically end up with a perplexingly sub-par score on the SATs. Trying to find “the zone” between overstimulation and lack of enthusiasm is the key. And on major exams, especially for dedicated students, the former tends to be more of a problem.

blogphotodestressSo, what kinds of stress-busting techniques can help you ace that final exam? Denise Zack, a counselor in Southern’s University Counseling Office, says there are some general tips that can help most individuals, and also some specific stress reduction suggestions based on how stress affects you.

“Certainly you want to try to stay on a regular and healthy schedule as far as eating, sleeping and studying is concerned,” she says.

But Zack also offers other general tips on de-stressing, such as:

*Don’t forget to breathe. It sounds silly, but you would be amazed at how many people hold their breath for extended periods of time. That prevents optimal amounts of oxygen from getting to the brain and the body. Try deep breathing exercises to help relax further.

*Pet therapy. Studies have shown that just petting your dog or cat can lower your blood pressure, reduce your heart rate and elevate your mood. There is a reason why therapy dogs can be found in hospitals and nursing homes. But dogs don’t discriminate – they will help people of all ages.

*Quiet your mind. No, that doesn’t mean yelling “shut up” to your brain. (That move might create a whole new set of stressors in your life, or indicate a much deeper problem.) Instead, try to focus on the present. Are you comfortable? Is there any imminent danger? The answer is usually no.

Zack also notes that some techniques are more effective at dealing with stress that affects you physically or behaviorally, while other methods are better at helping people cope with the emotional or cognitive. Someone affected physically might be getting stiff necks or increased fatigue, while those affected emotionally might find themselves crying or getting agitated more quickly than normal.

Zack suggests the following to deal with the physical aspects of stress:

*Exercise. Walking, jogging, swimming, or almost anything that gets your blood pumping can be helpful.

*Yoga. Not all of us are capable of bending ourselves into a pretzel, but any sort of stretching — gentle stretches for at least 20-30 seconds at a clip — can reduce physical signs of stress, as well.

*Take a warm shower. It sounds simple, but it can help increase blood flow to the part of the body that may be bothering you. That reduces pain and stress.

She suggests the following to deal with stress that affects you psychologically:

*Talk it out. Chatting with a trusted friend or family member can help lower cognitive stress levels.

*Write it out. In a similar way, writing in a journal can be cathartic and provide stress relief.

*Watch a movie in a warm blanket with some hot chocolate. It may sound like one of those after school TV movies, but it can work effectively. Humor, comfort foods and a relaxed atmosphere make a wonderful trifecta.

(For a look at an example of pet therapy, check out the video below of a de-stress program offered at Southern a few days before the start of final exams. Students were able to interact with dogs of various sizes and breeds.)

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/66676054 w=375&h=661]

We’ve all been there.

It’s the night before a big exam and it becomes painfully obvious you are underprepared. We’re not talking about the last minute jitters of a perfectionist who has kept up with their studying. (That person may simply need to give the material one final review or get a couple of questions answered.) No, this is a situation where a few weeks of readings, practice drills and other assignments were neglected — regardless of whether the cause was your own procrastination or because life truly threw you some curve balls.

That leaves only three options — beg and plead with your teacher or professor for extra time (generally not a winning strategy), study for a half hour and hope for the best (good luck with that one), or cram.

blogcramphotoHey, cramming isn’t so bad, right? It’s just 4 or 6 or 10 hours of concentrated study. And by tomorrow at the same time, it will be over. Most of us have heard the admonitions against cramming — basically that it doesn’t work that well. Yet, faced with the reality that we are not ready for the exam, ‘tis better to cram than not to cram. And sometimes we’re able to cheat the Test Reaper entirely with grades that are as good as usual.

But while we may be able to salvage a decent grade with a lengthy, intense night or two of studying, research has demonstrated that it’s a poor long-term learning strategy, according to Cheryl Durwin, assistant chairwoman of Southern’s Psychology Department. The reason has to do with the physiology of how the brain works.

Durwin says that when we learn, the information first enters sensory memory. But only that information that we pay attention to and process in some way will get remembered and stored in our working memory. The working memory is what we rely on for tomorrow’s test. “When students cram, they try to stuff too much information into working memory, which typically holds only 5 to 9 chunks of information before it becomes overloaded,” Durwin says.

But for long-term learning — the kind needed for cumulative final exams, future courses and life skills — cramming fares even more poorly. To truly retain what we learn for the long run, the information must be stored in our long-term memory. And that just doesn’t happen well when we study something for 24 or 48 hours, and then stop rehearsing it, as we commonly do after a test. And soon the information is lost from the shorter-term working memory.

“A better approach is to use distributed practice — studying over an extended period of time,” Durwin says. “Break up material into small, manageable parts and study one part each night. Don’t just read the information. After each section, try to summarize what you read in your own words. Write questions in the margins about things you don’t understand, so you can ask your instructor or look up answers. On the night before the exam, review and quiz yourself. This way, you avoid overloading working memory and important information will be stored in long-term memory for later use.”

OK, you might say, that sounds great for the future. But what about that exam you have coming up in two days? If you must play catch up for a test, Durwin says two days of cramming is better than one. Three days is better than two. She suggests the following to get the most out of cram sessions:

  • Focus first on material that is close to being learned, but not yet mastered. In other words, stuff you almost know, or mostly know. Then, proceed to increasingly more difficult information.
  • Use any study technique that makes information more meaningful. It might involve making flash cards or writing study notes. But be sure to put information into your own words and generate an example that is familiar and relevant to you. This helps prevent merely parroting words and phrases you do not understand.
  • Create organizational tools, such as timelines, concept maps, bubble maps, flowcharts, compare/contrast charts and diagrams. The better you organize information, the more likely you’ll remember it.

What techniques have you found to be useful in preparing for an exam at the 11th hour?