Practice, practice, practice
Dr. MacFarlane noted that in many cases, due to inefficient study techniques, people have a tendency to work on areas in which they are already proficient and to avoid areas that could use improvement. Make better use of your study time by taking periodic practice tests to help you gauge the areas you need to work on. As an added benefit, the practice tests will train you to work under the pressure of a time constraint. Because the time limit on most certification exams can create a state of panic, it is important that you learn to perform under these stressors and to control the feelings of unease.
Countless studies have been done over the years on the ineffectiveness of “cramming,” or waiting until the last available opportunity to study for an exam. Say you spend the last six hours before the exam reviewing material. It is easy to think that you have everything committed to memory; the material is “fresh” in your mind. The reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. Reviewing this way gives you a familiarity with the material, meaning you will be able to recognize it when you see it on paper. Unfortunately, the ability to recognize concepts is not the same as being able to recall them. The ability to recall or reconstruct information accurately when you need it requires exposure to the information over a long period of time.
The best course of action is to build a study plan that spans the course of several weeks prior to the exam. The more time you spend reorganizing the material so it has a structure, the more likely you are to commit the information to long-term memory. Aim for 45 to 60 minutes per day with your study material for at least six weeks prior to the exam.
Coping with your anxiety on test day
Even the most prepared test takers can feel anxiety on test day, but there are proven methods to counteract the effects. Start with getting adequate sleep the night before. Studies have shown that people perform better on memory tasks when they are well rested. It is also important to be in tune with yourself. Some people will suffer from interrupted sleep when particularly worried about something. To help with this, try exercising for 30 minutes before bed. Doing so will help your body release excess cortisol (a stress hormone) in your system caused by anxiety and will allow you to sleep better.
Ensure your body is well nourished the day of the exam. This means: do not skip breakfast. Try to eat healthy foods such as grains or fruit and avoid foods with high fat content. The goal here is to eliminate as many distractors as possible so you can dedicate all of your attention to the exam. If you are tired or your body does not have enough fuel, it can drastically hinder your performance.
Even if you are extremely prepared, when you sit down to write the exam and are flooded with information, you may begin to feel overwhelmed. Dr. MacFarlane offered two methods to help cope with those feelings during the exam.
Breathing: The 5-5-7 method
It can be extremely beneficial to stop at regular intervals (perhaps every five questions) and take deep breaths. The 5-5-7 method is a breathing exercise performed by inhaling for five seconds, holding your breath for another five seconds, then exhaling for seven seconds. Dr. MacFarlane suggested that completing this exercise at regular intervals during a test session can physiologically stimulate the central nervous system, which can heighten your awareness and push anxiety from your mind. He also stressed the importance of practicing this technique for several weeks prior to the exam during your preparation, saying, “The more practiced you are in this technique, the more effective it will be during exam time. Your body and mind will have a Pavlovian response to the exercise, which increases its effectiveness.”
Another proven technique outlined during our discussion was progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR. This is done by deliberately applying tension (by clenching) to certain muscle groups and then releasing the induced tension. During this process, all of your attention should be focused on how your muscles feel as the tension is released. As you learn to distinguish the feelings of a tense muscle as compared to a completely relaxed one, you are able to recognize the physical effects that anxiety has on your body and you can quickly alleviate them with this technique. You should practice PMR both when preparing for your exam and on the day of testing. Spend 15-20 minutes at a time performing this technique on your major muscle groups (feet, legs, hands, arms, neck, and shoulders) and it will help mitigate anxiety.
The bottom line
While these methods have been shown to help with anxiety, they may not work for everyone. There are many more techniques that may offer relief, and you can use these tips as a starting point to find what works best for you. Above all, make sure you spend adequate time studying and reviewing the material. The better command you have of the content, the less anxious you will be about the exam, and the better you will perform. Happy testing!