Take The Stress Out Of Tests


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Friday, August 18, 2023
Woman biting pencil as she studies on laptop

Tests are anxiety-inducing. The word test itself is often used to describe being in an agitated, stressful state of mind: “don’t test me.” Tests don’t have to be stressful! With the right preparation and mindset, you can go into your next exam feeling calm and confident. Use these strategies and you’ll be able to take the stress out of tests.

Eat Right & Stay Hydrated

As the old saying goes: “garbage in, garbage out.” One way to set yourself up for failure before an exam day is to double down on a bad diet. Sugary foods and drinks might give you a welcome burst of energy at first, but when your blood sugar drops as the rush wears off you’ll find yourself more irritable, sluggish, and less able to process and retain information. Research has shown that a dip in your blood sugar can lead to a dip in your attention span & memory retention. You’ll also want to avoid carb-heavy foods that could make you lethargic, and to go easy on meats like chicken and turkey that contain high levels of sleep-inducing tryptophan.

Eating light meals on study nights is the way to go, especially meals centered around leafy greens and fruits. Protein-rich nuts and legumes, fishes high in omega-3 fatty acids, and berries rich in antioxidants. Eggs and citrus juices are also a tasty and effective way of boosting cognition. If you've got a sweet tooth, you can indulge it with some dark chocolate or cocoa: both substances contain flavonoids that can help reduce mental fatigue and improve blood flow to the brain.

Most important of all: don’t forget to drink plenty of water! Even a mild case of dehydration can throw you off mentally. Dehydration can impact your ability to focus, process & retain information, and leave you feeling exhausted and more stressed than you’d normally be. Whether you like it sparkling or still, water is your best study partner. If you need to drink something to perk up, opt for black or green tea over coffee. Coffee is a diuretic and can dehydrate you, whereas tea has a higher water content and a more mellow, gradual caffeine kick to it. Tea also contains antioxidants that boost your brain's alpha waves, which has the effect of both relaxing you while also sharpening your focus.

Don’t Cram

Most of us have been guilty of procrastinating at some point in our lives, but few things can set you up for ruin like waiting until the last minute to study for a test. Studies have found that spacing out study sessions over a longer period of time improves memory retention. If you spend a few days digesting portions of your test material, you’ll have a much better chance of understanding and recalling it later than if you tried to cram it all at the last minute. The truth is that cramming at the last minute does work on occasion, but there is a tremendous downside: anything we learn through cramming tends to go in one ear and out the other after testing is done. Pulling an all-nighter might get you through a test, but you won’t remember what you learned in the long run. And that could ruin you for the NEXT test, which may very well build on what you “learned” during your last exam and assumes you’re still deeply familiar with that material.

Set A Routine

We are creatures of habits. Routines and familiar processes relax us, comfort us, make us feel in control during times of uncertainty. A simple way to take the stress out of preparing for tests is to create a regular routine for your studying and to stick with it. Pick a time of day and place where you can be productive and uninterrupted and commit to that schedule. Give yourself something to do that “transitions” you into your study session. Maybe it’s reviewing the notes from your last class, listening to a piece of calming music, or brewing a cup of tea. Do an action that says to you “it’s time to study” and repeat it before every study session. You should also have something you do to wrap up your study session: a little reward or treat that gives you permission to put your books aside and relax.

Make sure you include a few breaks in your study session. Your mind can only take in so much information before your ability to focus begins to wane. A good rule of thumb is to take a quick break every 20-30 minutes. Take a few minutes to stretch, grab something to drink, walk around, or check in on your housemates/family if you live with someone. That brief moment of respite gives your brain time to “reset” so you can get back to studying with renewed focus.

Test Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

Nothing takes the edge off your stress like KNOWING that you got something under control. Being able to prove to yourself that you understand and remember what you’ve learned will allow you to take your test with confidence. This is where the value of flash cards comes in. 

Create a set of cards of core concepts and key information you want to retain and drill yourself with them every day until you’ve got them committed to memory.

Having a study buddy can also help you in this respect. Having someone who can quiz you and keep you honest about your progress is an effective way to give yourself a reality check before a test. If you don’t have a fellow student or close friend who has time to do this, seek out a tutor.

Talk To Your Teacher

Never forget that your instructor WANTS to see you succeed. Nobody wants to see their students fail. If you’re feeling anxious about an upcoming test, talk to your teacher. Ask them for recommendations on what to focus on for your studies. See if they have any tips about resources you can use to help you study. If there’s a concept you’re having trouble grasping, don’t be afraid to ask for their help.

Get A Good Night’s Sleep

One of the best things you can do for yourself before a test is to get plenty of sleep. Don’t take your test sleep-deprived: a poor night’s sleep can leave you with low energy, more stress, a hard time concentrating, and a reduced ability to recall important information. Get a full night’s rest: 7-8 hours of sleep (or whatever number of hours of sleep that leaves you feeling the most refreshed). If you’re worried that you haven’t done enough studying, it’s better to stop early in the evening, sleep, and resume studying in the morning before the test rather than burning the midnight oil and getting only 4-5 hours of rest.

Learn More

Want to learn more student success tips? Check out some of our other stories:

Article by Austin Brietta

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