how to deal with exam stress

5 Strategies for Studying Success and Reducing Exam Anxiety

In this post, we are going to focus on five of the most common strategies that our psychology clients have success with in studying more effectively. This is a snapshot of strategies known to be effective.

Table of Contents


The Pressure of Exams

Imagine you have a big final coming up.. you probably also imagined the stress that comes along with that final. For many people, exams and studying for exams can beVERY stressful. You might even be someone who is stressed about an exam right now.  You may be feeling overwhelmed and unsure of where to even begin.  There may also be additional pressure you are facing; for example, if this is your final year of high school and you have receiAdobeStock_295904302ved conditional acceptance from a college or university program, you may need to finish with marks above a certain percentage to maintain your spot. Let's develop some ways to reduce exam stress and study more effectively.

Through implementing study strategies  with demonstrated success you can alleviate your stress.  It is helpful in general to have a plan to deal with your concerns, regardless of what they are.  Our clients have reported success using many of these methods and have gone on to be successful in completing their exams and feeling confident about how they did.

Many Students Feel Exam Stress

If you are feeling stress around finals, know this is not uncommon.  An Ipsos poll found among Canadian students, 40% reported feeling high stress and another 8% reported extreme stress.  Additionally, 43% of students indicated they did not give themselves enough time to study, and another 27% stayed up cramming in all night study sessions prior to an exam. 68% of students started studying only a week before.  All of this together suggests that many students could benefit from strategizing for success and for overall wellness.  If you or a loved one are experiencing difficulty around finals, consider some of the following strategies from our psychology experts:

1. Make a Study Schedule

Using a day planner or the calendar on your phone, take a look and see what your overall schedule is like. Consider how many exams you have upcoming, and plan in advance of how many days you will need to cover the exam material.  Contemplate what kinds of questions could be on the exam, and set goals around how many topics you expect to cover by the end of each session.  Do not try to cover everything in one session.

2. Space It Out (Distributed Practice) and Take Breaks  

Related to the first tip, space out your study sessions and cover a portion of the topics you need to learn per session.  By doing this, research shows you will be able to hold onto and remember the material much more effectively than if you focus on one subject for hours at length.  Additionally, take short breaks during your study session.  A guideline that has been suggested is for every half hour of studying you engage in, take a ten to fifteen minute break.  This helps to avoid becoming drained and impacting your focus and retention.

3. Paraphrase the Material

Often when we study, we reread notes or highlight things in our textbook.  While it is important to take notes and complete readings prior to class, this type of studying does not lead to being able hold the items in our memory storage and recall them when we need to.  Psychology  research shows engaging in active learning is much more beneficial for retention purposes, as well as our ability to pull the material out of our memory when we need.  ParaAdobeStock_255226859phrasing can be useful in this sense.  Write down the point/concept you are trying to learn in your own words.  Depending on the subject you are studying, contrasting/comparing this to other things you have learned, or considering examples of this concept can be useful in preparation for an exam and can enhance your understanding of it. If it is a math or technical-type of course you are studying for, complete some sample problems and explain how you got to each step.


4. Quiz Yourself

Whether it is finding example questions online, creating potential exam questions for yourself, or having a family member or friends ask you questions from the study material to see how well you remember what you studied, quizzing yourself is a good strategy.  It can help to highlight what areas you know well, and indicate what areas need further study.  Go back and focus on these areas solely.  If you are studying for math, focus on the problems giving you difficulty. If you are working with a family member or friend, make sure you say the answers aloud. Through active engagement of this sort, research shows your memory of the material will improve.

5. Get Rest and Eat Well

Generally speaking, our physical health impacts our mental health.  This also true in preparing for exams.  If you are tired and hungry, it is hard to concentrate on studying or your exam when you write it.  Make sure you are hydrated, have food in your system, and that you are getting a proper amount of sleep for optimal health.

The takeaway!

The key takeaway in all of this is the importance of planning ahead and engaging in strategies for studying that have been proven to help you succeed. Hopefully you will consider including at least one of the strategies discussed in your studying.  If you find you are experiencing intense anxiety during your exam, please check our recent post about combatting test anxiety here (link post).

If you need help with anxiety around exams or would like to talk to a psychologist further about optimizing your studying strategies, please reach out to book a free 15-minute consultation to see how we can assist!




What time of day is best for studying?

For most people, somewhere between late morning and early afternoon (1000-1400); however, some people benefit more from studying at night.  If you study at night, it is vital that you are still getting an ample amount of rest. (sources:,

What is the best study strategy overall?

Spacing out studying and taking regular breaks seems to be the most effective. (source:

Resources Used for the General Blog:

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