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Learning to Take the Stress Out of Finals Week

by Jocelyn Rubin | University of Maryland- College Park

F Posted in: College P Posted on: May 8, 2012
Student Studying Image Courtesy of Flickr, Wendt Commons

Cue the dramatic horror music. Finals week has arrived.

At this very moment, students at colleges across the country are either taking or preparing for their final exams of the semester: some with fearless determination; others with little faith.

Take this meme currently circulating the Internet: Now why would a meme like this be so popular among students who are actually studying?

The truth is that for many students, acing an exam is not as simple as mastering the material.

It also involves overcoming test anxiety.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), “Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health problems on college campuses.”

The ADAA estimates that 75 percent of U.S. adults “experience their first episode of anxiety by age 22.”

“(Students) may be well prepared,” says Dr. Ben Bernstein, author of Test Success! How to Be Calm, Confident & Focused on Any Test, “but they start to get very nervous…or they start to doubt themselves…or they get distracted.”

Bernstein’s recently published book on test preparation takes a new approach to studying for exams.

According to Bernstein, there are several factors that go into ensuring test success. Two of those, test content and structure, are the factors emphasized by most other test prep books.

However, there is a third component that Bernstein says is missing.

“You can prepare up to a point…,” he said, “but what all those books do not offer are the really hard core tools for you yourself as a test taker. How to approach the test in a different way where you don’t have to be anxious, where you don’t have to worry about losing your confidence. That way you can stay focused for the duration of the test.”

And what distracts college students the most?  What you would expect.

That guy in the lecture hall. We’ve all seen him. Or heard him, rather. Tapping his pencil….and then his feet…on your chair.

And then sighing loudly as though he is the only person in the world who just can’t figure out the answer to question 7.

Yes, these are all typical distractions that come with test taking, but there are others.

“When you take a test…if you tense up your body, or you stop breathing, or you start to feed yourself negative messages, or your mind starts wandering, I call that in the book ‘disconnecting’,” said Bernstein.

“And that disconnection is actually what causes the stress.”

Sure, the test itself is a stressor,” he said, “but what’s causing the stress is what you are doing in the face of that stressor.”

“If you watch students, which I do, take many different kinds of tests, you often see that, for instance, they hold their breath. If you hold your breath, your brain is getting the message that you’re dying…so of course your stress is going to go up immediately.”

“Test Success!” gives students exercises, questionnaires and examples to help them gauge their “optimal stress level,” or the level at which they can still work well under pressure.

And when students do start to slip in performance, they learn to recognize what it is that is throwing them off balance.

“The book is about basically how to keep yourself in the zone, which means three things. It means how to stay calm, how to be confident…and how to stay focused,” said Bernstein.

“This is common knowledge and it’s helpful knowledge and I think more students should learn this, actually even before college.”

It’s knowledge that Bernstein, a psychologist for 35 years and teacher for more than 40, wishes he had been aware of as a child.

“I was a very prodigious piano player as a young child,” he said. “…I loved playing the piano, but I was put into a lot of big competitions and recitals and I hated them.”

“I was nervous, my hands were shaking, my knees were shaking, and nobody helped me with it. The feedback I got was, ‘it’s all in your head’ or ‘you’ll grow out of it,’ or ‘what’s the matter with you?’ So none of those helped me at all.”

Working through his own anxiety  inspired Bernstein to help others.

“This book is really helpful for all the tests in life,” he said, “and that’s really what I intended, that this would be a toolbox that people could use way beyond college.”

“I wanted something that both improved the quality of study, but also something that could really have lasting value.”

“And these tools do have lasting value,” he said.

“Test Success!” is currently available through Barnes and Noble, as well as other retailers.

Jocelyn Rubin Jocelyn Rubin Jocelyn Rubin is a student at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is majoring in broadcast journalism with a concentration in American Studies. She hopes to work one day in the field of entertainment journalism.

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