At first, October seems like years away, but as the HSC exams creep closer, stress begins to build. Exams are an incredibly stressful period in students’ lives. While some stress can be a good motivator, it is important that it is managed to allow students to do the best they can in the exam room.

James Law

Here are some tips I have picked up to help manage anxiety and boost results. 

The first rule is the old adage “practice makes perfect”. When you learn a fact, your brain creates a pathway to that idea. Every time the brain retrieves knowledge, it reinforces this neural pathway. If you use the information in different ways, more connections will form. Above all, the most efficient way to promote this effect is to do practice tests. This has the added bonus of familiarising students with the kinds of questions that will be in the HSC.

If you feel like you aren’t familiar enough with the content to take practice tests, try out the “rubber duck debug” method. Take your rubber duck (or any inanimate object) and explain the concept out loud to someone, or some duck, who doesn’t know it. This forces you to organise the information in a clear, easily-understood way. 

As well as learning the content, many students struggle to concentrate for long periods of study. No one would expect an athlete to finish a marathon after only jogging for a few weeks – endurance builds with time. To focus for longer, increase your time spent studying bit by bit, week by week. 

A healthy lifestyle is essential to reduce stress and increase concentration. Firstly, get a good night’s sleep. Studies have shown that being awake for just 17 hours (getting up at 7 and going to bed at midnight) can affect performance like a 0.05 blood alcohol content. Try and keep active as well; doing as little as walking three times a week releases hormones which battle depression and anxiety.

Diet is also important. Make sure that you have a low GI breakfast, as well as small snacks throughout the day to keep blood glucose levels up. Lower GI foods such as whole grains release energy over a longer period of time, helping avoid energy crashes and concentration lapses.

In the exam room, there are some extra methods you can employ if you find that you’re losing focus. The first is to drink plenty of water; dehydration of just 1 per cent can lead to a 5 per cent decrease in cognitive function.If you find yourself struggling to concentrate during that three hour exam, go to the bathroom. The burst of physical activity as you walk increases blood flow, which delivers oxygen and nutrients to your brain. While you’re in there, you can use my final trick – the ‘mammalian diving reflex’. Washing your face with cold water lowers your blood pressure which calms you down and it also redirects blood to your vital organs – including the most important test-taking organ, your brain!

Written by James Law. Academic Mentor at Smart Moves Coaching Australia. Smart Moves organises seminars during the holidays for students to use these and other preparation techniques for the HSC.