Have you ever had one of those dreams where you arrive late to class, only to discover that today is the day of the most important exam of the year - and you're totally unprepared for it? Even in dreams, exam anxiety can wreak havoc on our state of mind, not to mention the damage it does to your ability to take tests and score well.
In real life, of course, you can't afford to carry that kind of negative energy with you into the classroom. Think about it: do you perform well when there are a million thoughts running through your head - or when you are relaxed? It's necessary, therefore to take the proper steps to prepare for an exam so that you can effectively manage your stress level, take a deep breath, and perform to the best of your abilities.
Since being unprepared is the leading cause of stress at exam time, the key to managing your stress is in the preparation. Although it sounds obvious, the most effective way to prepare is to attend class regularly and to keep current on your regular assignments. Falling behind in your regular work means that the time you could be devoting to review, studying, and preparing will be instead spent making up for work you should have already completed.
Establish beforehand what you will need to take the exam. Gather your lecture and text notes and schedule plenty of time for review. It is much more effective if you're able to review them shortly after you've written them down, rather than putting them aside and then trying to remember and make sense of all of them the night before the exam. Stay current on your reading, as well.
Make yourself a schedule (on the calendar) to determine how much time you have to devote to test prep each day before the exam. Covering smaller portions of material each day will allow for greater retention.
Set yourself up for successful study habits. Check your environment: Do you concentrate better in dim or bright light? With or without soft music? Will you be able to avoid distractions such as the TV, the phone, and intrusions from people?
For study aids, if possible, try to collect old quizzes or tests, covering up the answers so that you can practice with them again. The same goes for old assignments; using index cards with a question on one side and an answer on the other is an effective memorization technique.
A syllabus or course outline is an important resource, if available. Some instructors will even give you an outline or study guide for a particular exam. If not, it's a good idea to make one. Don't be a passive learner. Lists, diagrams, charts, flashcards, self-made test questions - these are examples of the kinds of tools that an active learner will employ in preparing for a test.
Your text is an important tool, and the way you utilize it makes a difference. Scanning quickly through the chapter, or pre-reading, will give you a general "big picture" of the concepts. Then go back and read more carefully, taking notes, looking up unfamiliar words, and writing down questions that may arise in your mind. A very useful feature is if the book has a review at the end of the chapter.
Another powerful prep tool is a study partner or group. Working with others will allow you to ask questions of each other, share ideas and new perceptions that you may not have considered, and, of course, quiz one another for practice.
Performing Under Pressure
Now it's time for the actual exam. Try to relax and stay positive.
When you first get your exam, perform a quick survey so that you can determine how to best ration your time. Consider completing the easier parts first, coming back for tougher questions later. Check to see if certain areas are assigned more points, and devote your time to those. You don't want to get stuck on a particular problem and run out of time, leaving other easier opportunities for points unfinished.
Make sure you read the questions carefully; if the question has two parts, be sure to address both of them. Ask your professor for clarification if parts of the questions or directions are unclear. If it's a multiple-choice style test, be sure to read all of the choices carefully. Often there will be more than one possible answer, but only one best answer.
If you have time, do go through and recheck your work. While your first answer is often the correct choice, you may notice some information on your second reading that will factor into your decision.
Don't Forget Your Body!
On the evening before the test, make sure you give yourself ample sleep time. You may be tempted to stay up into the wee hours of the night in order to cram; however, if you've followed the aforementioned steps, you shouldn't have to burn that midnight oil. Try to get a good eight hours of sleep. A well-rested mind will be your reward, allowing you to think more clearly and work more quickly and effectively.
Before the exam, eat a balanced meal, which will both prevent you from becoming lethargic and/or distracted by hunger pangs during the test, as well as serve to stimulate and focus your brain activity. Good "brain foods" include complex carbohydrates (whole grains with plenty of fiber), proteins (such as eggs), and healthy fats (such as omega-3 found in some fish).
Be prepared with the necessary means and materials, too. Make sure you have at your disposal whatever your instructor allows you to use - perhaps a text, your notes, a calculator, or dictionary - and of course writing utensils, paper, test booklets, etc.
When it's time to head to school, allot ample time for unseen circumstances (such as traffic), and it wouldn't hurt to have your clothes laid out ahead of time. You sure don't want to find yourself in that familiar dream where you're late, unprepared, (and possibly not dressed!) for the big test.
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