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9 Strategies for Overcoming Common Exam Preparation Challenges

There are various challenges you may face while preparing for exams; anything from trying to make sense of a mound of course notes and ignoring external distractions, to overcoming exam-related anxiety on the day. This article identifies some simple strategies to getting past some common bumps on the road you may face on the road to exam success.

Make big study tasks into lots of small ones

A common challenge you may face is the inability to get started in your exam preparation.

Sometimes this is caused by things seeming too large in your mind. If this is the case for you, try the five-minute trick. Chunk the task into short periods of time and start with just five minutes. Tell yourself you are just going to do five minutes and then have a break. What tends to happen is that once you get started, 10 or 15 minutes have passed before you know it! Repeat the process until you’re well on your way to completing your entire study task.

Motivate yourself with positive consequences

If you simply can’t be bothered preparing for an exam, try thinking about what benefits you’ll get if you do prepare properly. Look at the positive results of what will happen and try to build these up in your mind. If you need more benefits, invent ways to reward yourself for putting in some effort.

You could also look at the consequences of not doing it. Do you care or would you rather not have these consequences? The more positives you can find, the less procrastination you will experience, and the more motivated you will be.

Build up your self-belief

When it comes to the beliefs about your ability holding you back (it’s called self-efficacy), look for any evidence to the contrary. Have there been times in the past when you did do well? The trick is to become very aware of the self-talk that is preventing you from making improvements.

The beliefs you hold regulate your actions, so if you believe you aren’t good — you won’t practice! Your brain can’t create an improved response if you don’t practice, so your lack of ability shows you evidence of your belief, which creates more unhelpful self-talk. To break the cycle, aim to make small improvements by practicing the task as much as you can and reduce any negative self-talk. When you see an improvement, celebrate with positive self-talk. Shout out in your mind, “Yes, I did it — I’m getting good at it!” This will strengthen your self-belief and with it your intention to do better next time. With lots of little steps you will build your self-efficacy and your performance will improve.

Use your distractions as a reward

A common difficulty for many students is being distracted easily when attempting study. Your brain can only take in one thing, consciously, at a time. Your attention therefore can flick from one thing to another very easily and when you have a task to do, it can be frustrating how these distractions take over.

People tend to be motivated toward pleasure and away from pain. When studying isn’t the most pleasurable activity, your brain looks around for other things. Try this: Make a list of the most common distractions you have. List them in order of “most pleasurable” at the top to “least pleasurable” at the bottom. Do you tend to naturally go for the most pleasurable ones first? Now use your distractions as rewards for doing some effort. Before you start any exam preparation, commit to doing a short concentrated period of effort but offer yourself the most pleasurable distraction for a reward after you have completed the effort. Notice how well your brain will hold your attention to the task knowing that the reward will follow shortly.

Reduce your close-to-face screen time at night

There’s an increasing number of people complaining that they don’t concentrate well because of sleep problems. One reason could be because of the bright light from phones, tablets and laptop screens being used prior to sleep time.

Brain researchers know that sleep comes at night because the pineal gland (which is linked to the optic nerve from your eyes) releases a chemical called melatonin when it’s dark. The bright light prior to bed prevents the release of this chemical and so it can take a long time after the devices have been switched off before the brain knows it’s dark and time to sleep. This reduces the amount of sleep hours and so you can feel tired the next day. Try turning your devices off an hour before you plan to sleep and see if this helps.

Turn off your phone and Wi-Fi

Recent research by scientists such as Susan Greenfield shows that how people use technology is affecting their brains in a way that could be addictive and unhelpful for their ability to learn and think critically. Other researchers suggest that the increase in electromagnetic Wi-Fi energy from an increase in phone use is detrimental to our health and wellbeing. For example, if you sleep with your phone on and near your head or have a home wireless system turned on during the night, consider turning it off before you go to sleep. If you want to see some research, do an internet search on “cress and Wi-Fi”!

Control worried thoughts through present-centered awareness

It’s easy to experience an increase in worried thoughts around exam time. Try using some present-centered awareness exercises. Worry is created because you are thinking into the future with concern. Because your thoughts, emotions and body all work together, the future-focused thoughts create emotions that release stress chemicals that make your body tense.

The good news is that you can’t hold a worried thought when you focus your thoughts in the present moment. If you tend to worry a lot, ask yourself, “Where am I now?” Now is in this moment. Take some deep breaths and focus your attention on your breathing. If you’re in bed, try moving your attention to your feet and slowly move it up through your body, relaxing as you breathe deeply. If you’re out and about, try placing your attention on the environment around you. Slowly move through your senses. What do you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell? By bringing your attention back to present-centered awareness, your worried thoughts will disappear and you’ll feel better. Try it out!

Partner with time-saving technology

Students all over the world are inventing new ways to study through advances in technology. There could be relaxation music designed for studying, software to help you make notes, or apps to help you memorize content. You name it, there’ll be something out there you can use. Go online and discover some time-saving technology today!

Get yourself a study coach

Patrick specializes in helping students with common exam preparation challenges. If you’re struggling with some serious study issues, visit the Passing Exams website to get in touch with Patrick and discuss what can be done to help you. Browse through the home page links and articles page and see if you can pick up some more useful tips. Online exam-preparation coaching through Skype is also a great way to get help and it’s convenient and affordable.

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