Helping students to cope with exams

24 May 2016 | Story by Newsroom
tudent development officers and clinical psychologists from the Faculty of Commerce – Bonani Dube and Jean Luyt.
tudent development officers and clinical psychologists from the Faculty of Commerce – Bonani Dube and Jean Luyt.

A moderate amount of stress can be a good thing as it can sharpen concentration and performance and can help to create the energy and motivation that students need to keep studying. However, too much stress can be unhealthy and can hinder students from performing adequately in their exams.

Student development officers and clinical psychologists in the Faculty of Commerce, Bonani Dube and Jean Luyt, share their advice on how students can better deal with stress during exam time.

What is stress?

Stress is the body's natural response to a perceived threat, which causes our bodies to go into fight or flight mode due to the release of adrenalin.

Stress causes physical, emotional and behavioural changes. Physical changes include headaches, neck aches and stomach problems; emotional changes are often irritability, tearfulness, sadness or anxiety; and behavioural changes comprise sleeping problems, an increase or decrease in appetite, and difficulty in concentrating.

“Students often feel stressed around exam time with good reason because the stakes are very high and their exams are what they are being assessed on for the year. In a way, stress is a very helpful thing in exam time because it activates them and energises to attend to their studies,” says Luyt.

Coping with stress

High levels of stress are unhealthy and students should adopt the four A's to cope with stress: admire, adjust, avoid and accept.

Take the time to admire yourself. Replace negative self-talk with positive talk. Practise positive affirmations such as, “I have made it this far. I am worthy. I am clever. I can do this.”

“Nobody at UCT is here if they are not in the top five percent of the country. You wouldn't be here if you didn't have the brains to be here. So you need to remember that,” says Luyt.

Adjust your behaviour appropriately and face your reality. “It is exam time – you will have to adjust your schedule and cut down on the partying, sleeping in late, social visits and fun with friends.”

Avoid unnecessary stressors. “Don't do things that will stress you out. If you know calling your mom will wind you up, avoid calling her until after you have written the exam.”

Face the reality, accept your situation and stop complaining. “Yes, exams are stressful, but you can't avoid writing them. Minimise your stress by accepting that exams are a reality for the next few weeks. Once the exams are over, you're going to go enjoy vac and catch up with family and friends.”

The best way to minimise your anxiety is to face it. The more you avoid the situation that is making you anxious, the more anxious you will get. If you face the issue, you may realise that the situation isn't as bad as you thought it was and find a solution and succeed.

Riding the wave

Luyt uses the analogy of exams being like a massive wave coming towards you.

“No matter how much you tell yourself you will stand firm, the wave will crush you. So there are two ways to approach it when the wave is coming – you duck down and immerse yourself in your work and accept the reality … or you hop on your surfboard and ride the wave; use the energy to ride to success. To ride the wave you need skills and tools, which is you as a student reaching out for help – studying old exam papers, going to your tutors and engaging with your work.”

“Prioritise your preparation for your exams. You can't sit in the exam room and expect to do a three-hour paper that took you six hours to do. The more prepared you are, the less anxious you are. The less anxious you are, the more likely you are to be confident and pass your exam,” says Dube.

Quit the bad habits

Behavioural changes are the most evident among students during the exam period. Staying healthy mentally, physically and emotionally is the key to successful stress management. You need to eat healthily, get quality sleep, exercise regularly and drink lots of water. Reduce the intake of caffeine, energy drinks and junk food as these affect the quality of sleep and increase anxiety.

“Your quality of sleep is affected because your body is pumped with caffeine or sugar, and when you go into your exam, you go blank because you haven't had time to consolidate what you were studying the night before. Quality sleep is extremely important,” says Dube.

Dube believes that normalising visits to psychologists is the key to overcoming mental health stigmas. “A lot of students think 'Oh no, I'm going to see a psychologist. I'm falling off the rails.' And this is not the case. We need to make it okay for people to come and see a psychologist,” she explains. “Essentially we help you unpack your difficulties and direct you to where need help and help you with those difficulties.”

Mental health

Students with existing mental health difficulties, for instance an anxious or depressed person, needs to continue with whichever coping mechanisms they use and not get sidetracked by exams.

“It is vitally important that you look after yourself during this time. Continue taking your medication; avoid substances and avoiding things that will make you anxious. If you are attending therapy sessions, continue doing so because your stress levels will be higher now than at any other time,” says Dube.

Lend a helping hand

If you see that a friend is stressed out during exam time, help them by doing activities together. Exercise is vital, so suggest walking together to the library or the park, or go to gym together. The small practical things are helpful. Wake one another up and take turns making a healthy breakfast before your exams – you cannot write on an empty stomach.

Reaching out

Never be afraid to ask for help from a close friend or family member – too much anxiety can be paralysing.

If you are overwhelmed and don't know where to turn to, call the UCT Student Careline. Set up in partnership with the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), the line offers 24/7 telephonic counselling, advice, referral facilities and general support to students facing mental health challenges or contemplating suicide. It is also available to offer support and advice to anyone who is concerned about a student who might be in distress.

The Student Careline number is 0800 24 25 26 and is free from a Telkom line. You can also sms 31393 for a call-me-back.

Student development officers can be found in the humanities, engineering and the built environment and science faculties for free. Health sciences have a similar programme to support their students.

Consultations with the Student Wellness Service will be charged; however, students on financial aid do not need to pay for services. If you cannot pay for consultation, you are welcome to negotiate with Student Wellness.

If students urgently need an appointment and cannot get through to Student Wellness or cannot afford to be on the waiting list, they can contact Ian Mackintosh from the Student Wellness Service, or UCT's Ombud.

Story Chido Mbambe. Photo Michael Hammond.

Contact details

For students having a medical, psychological or psychiatric emergency:

Student Wellness Service

Psychological services

021 650 1017


Medical services

021 650 1020


Social worker

021 6501017


In case of emergency: CPS

021 650 2222/3

Department of Student Affairs (DSA)

021 650 3535


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