Exam stress: it’s the single biggest concern for the vast majority of second level students, according to a recent survey by Studyclix.ie.
The volume of anxiety is of no surprise to Dr Jennifer Symonds, associate professor of education at the UCD school of education.
“Testing is not a natural state – it is an artificial condition that we have created that has negative impacts on many people’s mental health,” she says.
For Dr David Putwain, professor of education at the school of education in Liverpool John Moores University, exam stress has become a key concern of his work.
“Most students at some point feel nervous when taking an important test or giving a presentation, but exam anxiety refers to those students who experience persistently high anxiety and worry in situations where their performance will be evaluated, and it is surprisingly common,” he told a recent gathering at UCD’s school of education and Geary Institute for Public Policy.
“It comes out in bursts of panic, feeling sick, stomach turning to jelly, stage fright, a feeling that they will fail and their life will be a failure and that they will let themselves down. Girls do report it more than boys, but there is no social group or school that seems to experience it more or less than others.”
While exams and pressure are a part of life, he says, there has to be a consideration of what they are for: to select the most academically able for certain courses, to prepare for the workforce or to recognise learning.
“We should consider the reasoning behind putting 100 per cent of school students through a system that is not suited to all of them, and we should have a system that identifies what people are good at. This, in most westernised nations, is not the system we have in place,” he says.
In the meantime, however, students are stuck with the system we have.
Exams can be enormously stressful for some, and parents can struggle to support their children through an intense few weeks. We caught up with experts, teachers and students and asked: what’s the best way to beat the exam blues?
“Behaviour, thinking, emotion and physiology all interact,” says Dr Putwain. “When we are anxious, we breathe from the chest rather than the diaphragm. But diaphragmatic breathing – also known as abdominal or belly breathing – changes our physiology and can help calm us down during a panic attack.”
Finish your studying in the early evening and do something that will help you to wind down, relax and sleep better— Bernadette Walsh, CareersPortal.ie
There are many guides online, he says, but this method of breathing involves sitting or lying in a comfortable place, closing your eyes and placing one hand on your chest and one on your belly (below the rib cage but above the diaphragm), inhaling through the nose for about four seconds and drawing the breath down towards the stomach. Your stomach will push out.
Exhaling, tighten the abdominal muscles and let your stomach fall downward.
If practised a few times a day, Dr Putwain says it has the knock-on effect of changing your thinking so that you are in control of your emotions, not the other way around.
Familiarise yourself with the setting and the papers
Most of this year’s exam students do not have the experience of doing a State exam because the Junior Cert was cancelled in 2020, says Luke Saunders, former teacher and founder of Studyclix.ie.
“I’d suggest, in the days leading to the exam, that they go to the hall, see where they will be sitting, visualise what time you set the alarm for and how you get there on the day, and that you’re familiar with the instructions on the paper,” he says.
Avoid marathon study sessions
Feeling overwhelmed? Take breaks rather than study straight through for three or four hours – and take them before you get tired, says first year UCD psychology student Ronan Griffin, who achieved 625 points in his Leaving Cert.
“I did 25 minutes of work and took a five minute break, playing with the dog, walking around the house or garden, and staying off my phone,” he says. “Having a break planned also means that you set yourself tasks with your 25 minutes and use your time more productively.”
Fine a routine that works for you
By her own admission, Aisling Walsh, a UCD student, is not a morning person. Her solution for getting through exams was to find a routine that suited her which made her feel better.
“I spent €20 on pens because I felt they would help me write better or faster. Mam bought me a UCD hoodie that I wore to the exams because I wanted to (and did) go to UCD for law, and it might sound irrational, but it gave me comfort,” says Walsh, who provides content for Studyclix.ie
Take time to relax
A good night’s sleep and eating nutritious food is very important to ensure your energy and focus levels are high, says Bernadette Walsh, guidance counsellor with CareersPortal.ie.
“Rather than study right up until bedtime the night before, focus a little on relaxing yourself,” she says. “Finish your studying in the early evening and do something that will help you to wind down, relax and sleep better. Go for a walk, swim or cycle. Kick a ball around for an hour and get some fresh air.”
She says this will help you sleep better, and is great preparation. “Some students find listening to podcasts that promote relaxation and mindfulness very helpful to reduce their stress levels,” she adds.
Get your timing right
There are always great students who have all the knowledge but run out of time in the exam hall, says Luke Saunders. This can exacerbate anxiety.
“Have a clear time plan in your head, especially for exams like history and English, where time is tight, and write down this timing when you go into the exam hall,” he says. “This will help you stay on track.”
Control your phone, don’t let it control you
When she was facing into her Leaving Cert, Aisling Walsh was worried about the amount of time she was spending on her phone. Her solution?
“I set timers to block off my social media apps for a certain amount of time during the day,” she says. “I like one app called Forest, which sets limits on your usage of certain apps. It grows a little virtual tree for the time you spend offline, but the tree dies if you cancel the timer. I found it helps me to stay focused.”
Need further help? Check these sources of support
The Health Service Executive (HSE.ie) has compiled some useful tips on staying calm and managing your wellbeing
The youth mental health website has useful tips and case studies of students who suffered from anxiety but managed their exam stress during State exams
AIBFutureSparks.ie contains a range of resources to help students suffering from stress and anxiety. Over 600 post-primary schools have signed up, and students log in with their school access code. If you do not have a school access code, you can ask one of your teachers to share it with you, or teachers can sign up for free at the site to get the code