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March 14, 2011 | by  | in Opinion |
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Healthy Minds on Campus: Exam Anxiety

One might wonder what would prompt discussion of exam anxiety at the beginning of a trimester when exams are far away. In fact, a number of factors that contribute to exam anxiety exist now. These issues addressed at the start of your studies should lessen exam stress later.

The brain is designed to process information incrementally. When we attempt to assimilate large amounts of material in short periods of time, confusion can be the result. This confusion shuts down the part of the brain that problem-solves and generates novel ideas, and this occurs at the time thought and retrieval of information is critical to academic success. The level of anxiety escalates, and we assume that we are ‘anxious’ about exams. Instead we experience the anxiety that is the natural outcome of trying to learn too much in a short period of time. The delay of study until the end of the trimester increases the likelihood of being overwhelmed by anxiety versus being prepared for exams.

The university organises papers by classes—short segments of information delivered in lecture form reinforced with tutorials and online information. This in fact is the most effective way to learn. The attendance of class allows the brain to hear the information it needs to receive. Reading material before and afterwards gives the brain a second or third go at the information while we pause to reflect and formulate questions about the material. This improves our understanding. Assignments represent assessments of how well the material is being learned and give us the opportunity to apply knowledge. Tutorials provide time to discuss material and pose questions. Each of these activities provides students with a logical sequence to learn even complex material. When we understand the reason behind activities, it helps to actively engage in a process.

Some students, however, have never learned how to make the best use of class, study and/or tutorial time. Learning Services can be quite helpful to establish solid habits or alter ineffective less adaptive habits. The service can provide beneficial advice and help to prevent overwhelming anxiety at the end of the trimester.

At times, we may have had previous experiences that result in a vulnerability to anxiety during exams. We may be able to lessen the anxiety by going to class, studying and making effective use of tutorials, yet still experience anxiety at the time of assessment. We can have good command of class material and be unable to communicate the knowledge we have gained. We know that our brains form what Joseph LeDoux coins “physical body states” when we have experienced distress, and we are instantly returned to these states when a situation presents that is even remotely similar. It can be helpful to identify if this is happening.

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