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Stress-free studying: exploding the “exams must be stressful” myth

December 12, 2016




Students plus exams equals stress; or does it? 


We’ve become so accustomed to associating students with stress that it’s assumed that all students get stressed.  This simply isn’t true.  There are countless students happily wandering around campuses all over the world having spent the day studying hard, feeling productive, engaged and fulfilled, with not a hint of stress.  They enjoy their studying; they’re thriving and eager to learn.  These students really do exist and perhaps the increasing number of students progressing on to postgraduate study is a hint that it’s possible.  Yet these students are never talked about.  The stressed students have the loudest voices.  Bad news sells and the media wants to tell us all about how stressed students are. What’s more, students love to fill social media with humorous posts of their misery for all to see.


Yes, it’s true that stress is a growing problem for students.  The number of students seeking help and contacting helplines and mental health charities, citing exam stress as the reason, has risen sharply.  It’s not to belittle the problem; the problem is real and urgently needs addressing.  Indeed, if we can acknowledge that not all students are stressed, and that students can indeed study without getting stressed, we can help the students who are stressed more.


There are two main reasons why students get stressed.  Firstly, they totally underestimate how much work there is to do.  They leave it too late and, because they have a deadline, be it an exam or date to hand in coursework, the time pressure leads to stress.  In the workplace, anyone working to a deadline will know that planning ahead and effective time management is essential to the smooth running of a project.  Many students have not yet mastered these skills.


Secondly, learning itself can be stressful.  Done in the right way, learning need not be stressful but all too often students are not aware of this and, through no fault of their own, spend their time learning in a way that feels stressful.  Learning is enjoyable if it is just the right level of difficulty, that is, it’s a little bit of a challenge but the challenge is solvable.  Too easy and it’s boring, too hard and it’s stressful.  Students get stressed because instead of pacing their learning, building on what they know little by little, adding to their knowledge in bite size chunks, they actually try to learn too much in one go too quickly.  It’s a challenge that is uncomfortable and feels stressful. 


How can students solve these problems and learn how to study stress-free?  By planning, getting organized and taking action right from the start of their course.  They need to understand just how much work is involved; full time means full time.  If they don’t start studying full time until the deadline is looming, they don’t have a chance of doing the work any way other than in panic mode.  Students may naively retort they can’t work until they’re under pressure yet they are doing themselves a great disservice. Stress-free studying is entirely possible; students need to reframe their expectations and we need to show them how.




© Amanda Dewinter 2016


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© Amanda Dewinter 2020