How I Dealt With High-Stake Exams

Handling national exams like the PSLE, O-Levels and A-Levels

First things first, let’s get this straight: few people like exams. The process of exam prep is often mentally challenging, intellectually fatiguing, and in certain cases, physically demanding. Yet, exams are a constant force in Singapore’s formal education system.

National exams like PSLE, O Levels, and A Levels happen every two to four years after the age of 12 – and this is to say nothing of the intermittent school exams that happen yearly until students leave school.

When I was still in the thick of said education system, I tried my best to take a hakuna matata approach to learning. This was not always easy to do in my immediate schooling environment, which might be politely described as “enthusiastic” on our best days, and “competitive” on our worst.

Over time, I’ve marshalled a fair few tricks that have helped me deal with the stress of routine testing. These include both practical tasks which are most
germane at zero hour, as well as personal philosophies that prevent stress from reaching a critical point. Allow me to share four pointers with you.

TAKE CARE OF YOUR BODY AND MIND TO ENSURE MENTAL CLARITY AND ALERTNESS DURING EXAMS

If we were to see exams as a marathon that we must run, then clearly, our bodies are infinitely salient to the process. Getting sufficient sleep, movement, and nutrition, even when exams loom close, has been key to my stress reduction.

I found sleep particularly important in my younger days, as afternoon activity after activity took its toll on my energy levels. In my later schooling years, my schedule became more flexible and self-directed; at that point, I had to learn to prioritise habits like exercise, eating wholesome meals, and pursuing fulfilling hobbies.

Remember: rest is requisite. The last thing you want to be is sick or sleepy on your exam day, which is all too likely should you push yourself too hard. When it’s time to work, work hard; but when it’s time to decompress, do give yourself time to do something fun or good for yourself!

3 USEFUL TIPS TO REDUCE COMMON DISTRACTIONS FACED BY STUDENTS TODAY

The pervasiveness of digital technologies – and ergo, digital distractions – cannot be understated in this day and age. I can think of many an instance where I chose to spend “five more minutes” on social media or YouTube, rather than do the task that I was supposed to do. 

Sheer willpower is oftentimes insufficient, so you may find these tips helpful instead:

  • Leave your phone/tablet/laptop in another room, or leave it with someone who can keep you accountable.
  • Use apps that help regulate the time you spend on particular apps or sites.
  • Select suitable study spots. If you can’t focus in your bedroom – go somewhere else!

USE WHAT WORKS FOR YOU - THE PRODUCTIVE TOOLS I'VE USED AND WHAT I'VE DISCOVERED OVER THE PAST 16 YEARS

When it comes to “exam techniques”, “tips for studying”, “how to manage time/cram for exams” – I’ve been there, done that. Over the past sixteen years, I’ve tried the gamut of study methods: (Click on the links below to learn more)

*Pomodoro for time management;

*Cornell for note-taking and

*Bullet Journal for keeping on top of tasks.

I’ve tried studying first thing in the morning, late at night; at home, at school, in libraries; the list goes on. The only thing I’ve found that works? Doing what best serves you, and not anyone else.

Give different study techniques a shot (if you’d like!) before exams are nigh, but stick to the basics in your routine when it comes to crunch time. 

For example, the Pomodoro method was lauded by everyone around me, but I found that I had little patience for its 25-5 intervals.

Instead, I did better with ‘warming up’ in the daytime and more focussed studying at night. Sticking to a routine that I was comfortable with made for a less stressful, more timely preparation process.

FOCUS ON THE PROCESS - WHY CONSISTENCY AND MOMENTUM ARE THE BUILDING BLOCKS TO EFFECTIVE LEARNING

“The higher the stakes, the higher the pressure”: this perspective seems intuitive and almost natural to us. Parents, teachers, and students alike fret much more about national exams like PSLE or O-Levels than regular school tests, even though the difference between the former and latter is one of degree and not of kind.

Students should prepare for all tests/exams in the same way – by focusing on the
preparation process, and not the hypothetical catastrophic consequences that might (or more realistically, might not!) occur after the results come back.

I applied the same amount of effort to my weekly quizzes in university as I did to the final exams that happened every semester; as a result, not only were my quiz results consistent, I was much less stressed out in the days leading up to my final exams.

In other words: if we treat so-called ‘small stuff’ as equally important parts of the learning process, learning becomes more consistent and more organic. Following that, big-ticket items will naturally become less daunting – as they should be.

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About The Author

Miss Fiona Tan is a Teacher Associate at Creative Campus. As a Hwa Chong Institution and NUS alumna, she is particularly familiar with what it takes to excel in demanding exam conditions.