Managing -Stress - 1

The lead-up to university exams can be stressful, especially if you feel unprepared and, after months of study, your comprehension still feels skin deep. The default behaviour would be to start cramming. This, however, turns out to be the worst thing you can do to prepare for exams.

Crammers typically don’t take care of their bodies. The impact of not eating, sleeping, and exercising, due to exam stress, has the knock-on effect of messing with your biorhythms and blocking your cognitive function. In other words: a disaster for learning, and the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve.

Mimma Mason has a background in cognitive science and is the head of Pearson Clinical and Talent Assessment. “Sleep consolidates memory,” says Mason. “Sleep, diet, and exercise directly regulate the neurotransmitters that are needed for thinking and learning.”

You want to prime and sharpen your mind. You want to get it ready for some serious learning action and avoid mental stress. So, surely there’s a smarter way?

The great news is, managing exam stress and improving your performance results is simple if you follow these four golden rules.

1. Learn in bite sizes

Learning a bit, doing a bit, and testing your knowledge at key moments along the way promotes deeper learning and comprehension. It gives you the chance to process information properly, and have the time and space to tweak, modify, and work on areas that need attention.

For post-graduate student Zoe Carney, it’s been a successful approach for managing the stress of a full study workload combined with the demands of two young children.-The Journey Is The Destination .-- Dan Eldon (2)

Carney is studying for a Graduate Diploma of Psychology at the University of Monash and completes all of her coursework online. To help her make the most of working remotely, Carney pre-reads before starting each module. “Completing the prescribed reading for each module, in advance of it beginning, is essential for keeping on top of the workload,” says Carney. This approach helps her absorb basic concepts and make better use of each online module.

Regular testing and revision also helps Carney prepare and diffuses the potential for stress leading up to university exams. “For me, if I feel I have done as much preparation as possible, I feel less stressed. Otherwise, exams are quite stressful and this stress can sometimes affect my marks in a negative way,” she says.

Carney’s approach is also backed by learning science. Of the 10 techniques tested, spaced learning over time rated the highest in performance results, memory recall, and reducing academic stress.1

Learning in bite sizes, gradually over time, also has the added bonus of being remembered well beyond exams.

“Research has found … if you want to remember something for five years you should space your learning every six to 12 months.”
– Simon Oxenham, The Lesson You Never Got Taught in School: How to Learn!

2. Mix different ways to learning

If you’re struggling with your course material, there is a good chance you like to learn in a slightly (or completely) different way to others. This is true for many.

We all learn in different ways: by listening, watching, doing. There is no cookie cutter approach.

In their studies, learners were shown to have less tolerance for complex, boring, or static material and had attention spans that were inherently selective.2

“Although many learners lose interest in our trainings after only five minutes, these same people are capable of focusing for two hours listening to a celebrity lecture, or watching a National Geographic special. As a result, we know their brains are capable of paying attention.”
– Art Kohn, Learning Solutions Magazine

The way content is delivered is critical for optimum learning. For Carney, staying engaged and stimulated involves learning through an interactive learning environment that mixes reading, videos, assignments, online chats, group discussions, emails, and regular quizzes. This approach helps Carney stay connected in her learning, giving her tools to learn at her own pace, test her knowledge regularly, and prepare for university exams in a more natural and measured way.

Mason agrees with this approach. “​The way you mix up your learning is important. You’re more engaged and more likely to remember material that you make personal to you​; it’s the priming effect​,” says Mason.

3. Set specific goals and deadlines

Setting goals and targets is another essential tool to help you manage exam stress.

Be specific with the goals you want to set; the more detail you have here, the easier it will be to measure your progress as you get closer to exams. Setting goals gives you something tangible to work with.

Once you have set your goals, you can then set up automatic alerts on your phone to remind you of key learning deadlines.

Mason says that rewards play an important part in goal setting. “Don't forget the role of feedback and rewards,” says Mason. “Build ways to reward yourself into your study goals. Positive reinforcement helps you stay motivated and engaged.”

Pete Reynolds is studying for a Graduate Diploma in Psychology (Advanced) at the University of Melbourne. He is a big advocate for setting specific goals in order to help manage his workload.

Reynolds is completing a one-year course on campus, commuting more than three hours a day, three days a week, while also juggling a young family. And he still finds the time to rock climb and train for half marathons. “I have to plan ahead and make sure I don’t leave things to the last minute,” says Reynolds.Break -image -3

In the face of such an intense schedule, Reynolds could be forgiven for feeling the weight of stress leading up to exams. But that has not been his experience. “I don’t generally find exams stressful, just daunting, because of all the time required to put into revision,” he says.

Reynolds’ ability to stay calm and focused comes from careful planning and setting specific goals. “If an assignment is due in at 8am, I always submit the night before. If I have an exam in week three of exam period, I will plan out each day during the three weeks leading up to the exam.”

This approach has worked for Reynolds.

Not only has he managed to enjoy his study and avoid the stress of exams, he also spends valuable time with his family. He also finished 29th (outright) in the recent Run Melbourne half marathon. Quite an achievement!

So, it just shows — there’s always time to achieve if you plan ahead.

4. Do regular practice tests

If you’re in doubt that you’re ready for exams — test, test, then test again.

Studies have shown that regular low-stakes testing can reap larger benefits to deep learning than higher stake and less frequent testing, such as end-of-term exams.

“Unlike many of the other techniques mentioned, the benefits of practice testing are not modest — studies have found that a practice test can double free recall.”
– Simon Oxenham, The Lesson You Never Got Taught in School: How to Learn!

Regular practice testing puts you on the spot, in the moment, and with a time constraint similar to exams. It helps validate what you have learned, what you may still need to know and, if you don’t do well, you can simply test again with no real-life consequences. “You get better at what you practice, including exams and working under exam condition​s,” says Mason.Practice -test

In the National Centre for Education Research’s teaching guide Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve learning, laboratory testing repeatedly demonstrated that regular testing helped students remember material for a final exam. Quizzes or tests that required students to actively recall information, such as fill in the blanks or deliver short answers, in particular, promoted better recall of the course material.

Personalising the experience was also shown to increase test effectiveness. Similar to the principles used in online classroom environments, when students were able to actively engage in their learning by creating flash cards, taking notes, or making comments while writing, their performance results increased.4

A new way of learning

With such great results from paced learning, goal setting, and low-stakes testing, perhaps we need to consider the effectiveness of large, stressful exams. If stress is detrimental to memory recall and cognitive function, perhaps methods that encourage gradual and active learning offer a better approach?

Olivia Horner is studying for an Advanced Diploma of Professional Screenwriting at RMIT. Horner’s current course doesn’t require exams but she has some reservations based on past experiences. “I find exams to be a highly pressurised environment that doesn’t necessarily guarantee performance. Conversely, some people are great at cramming for exams, so while they may perform well in the moment, they don’t necessarily retain the knowledge long-term,” says Horner.

Exams may be a part of your education but remember to keep it simple and take the long-term approach to learning. Comprehension while you learn, rather than at the end, is what you’re aiming for. Study in bite sizes, mix up how you learn, set rock-solid goals, and test, test, test until you can’t test any more.

This will help keep the exam demons at bay.


1 Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K., Marsh, E., Nathan, M., & Willingham, D. (2013). Improving Students' Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14 (1), 4-58 DOI: 10.1177/1529100612453266 [PDF]

2 Art Hokn, Learning Solutions Magazine, June 12, 2014

3 Simon Oxenham, The Lesson You Never Got Taught in School: How to Learn! 2016, online article referring to research paper Improving Students' Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14 (1), 4-58 DOI: 10.1177/1529100612453266 [PDF]

4 Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K., Marsh, E., Nathan, M., & Willingham, D. (2013). Improving Students' Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14 (1), 4-58 DOI: 10.1177/1529100612453266 [PDF]


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