Facing down the tiger: A field guide to surviving exam season

By Tom Henderson

Imagine a tiger. A consummate predator, incredibly camouflaged, you know, there might be one about. Imagine you then pass a particularly dark tangle of greenery and something moves. Naturally, you tense up, ready to escape. We can imagine the threat, and our bodies respond accordingly; muscles tighten, we make ourselves smaller and our minds contract to focus on running very fast in the opposite direction. It’s a very handy response for escaping an imminent, gory death.

Durham doesn’t have many tigers wandering around, but many of us will find this primal response is triggered anyway. Through our GCSEs and A-Levels and many assessments since, we’ve been taught that exams are important: each new round is “the most important set of tests you will ever do”– that what we write on a piece of paper over the course of an hour or two will dictate the course of the rest of our lives.

Whether or not this is true is irrelevant: we have absorbed the warnings. We have internalised the sense of danger of a failed exam, even if we’re not sure precisely what that danger is. That is today’s tiger, and it provokes pretty much the same response as the four-legged variety.

Unfortunately, we can’t escape the danger of failing an exam by running away from it. Our instincts are out of date. They’re designed for a short dash away from predators, not long hours in the library. Trying to keep them up for months on end is exhausting, leaving us in no condition to do any work at all. We need, therefore, to fight our flight reflexes.

There are many ways to do this. These are some of my favourites;

  1. Mindfulness and meditation are one option. They can help you identify tension you hadn’t noticed and release it, and to concentrate on the present moment, rather than the terrifying hypothetical future. If you’re not a sitting down kind of person, a similar presence of mind can be achieved through sport or music or cooking or reading a mildly diverting Palatinate article on wellbeing (or even writing a Palatinate article on wellbeing). Anything all-consuming will do; something to concentrate the mind and draw it away the cataclysmic fantasia it’s busily composing about the exams’ aftermath. Put that tiger to sleep.
  2. Speaking of sleep: rest is important. 40-hour caffeinated stints in the library are all very well, but not all that useful for more than your own martyred bragging rights. Get sleep, take breaks and walk around the outside of the Bill Bryson to make your reflective learning even more reflective.
  3. Plan your revision and time. This doesn’t have to be too complex, but it’s a good tool for reducing your cognitive load. Instead of trying to remember what you were going to revise next, you can remember complex formulae or Dryden quotes.
  4. Stand up straight. Really. According to a 2010 study on ‘Power Posing,’ posture can affect the production of hormones in the body such that a powerful body position will actually make you feel better. More importantly, being hunched over and smaller than you are will make you feel worse. This is particularly easy; give it a go on the way back from the library, if nothing else.
  5. Keep an eye out for the Work Smart (née Stress Less) campaign in colleges and in the Students’ Union. There’s a lot of stuff going on, which will help to a) get you out of the tunnel vision of exam season and b) demonstrate that there is more to life than these few essays you’ll churn out in the exam hall.
  6. Share things. Quite apart from the fact that there are few more reassuring phrases than “I haven’t done enough revision either,” the act of articulating a problem makes it easier to deal with. Speak to friends, your welfare team or the University counselling services if you need to.

Remember that the danger, such as it is, stops at the exam. A limited amount of stress can be helpful, but keep it in proportion. Exams aren’t going to kill you; don’t let them eat you whole.

Tom Henderson is on the welfare team at the College of St Hild and St Bede. He has little experience with actual tigers.

Illustration: Charlotte Way

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