From DSEs to IB, the way to ace your exams is through laughter, not cramming

From DSEs to IB, the way to ace your exams is through laughter, not cramming

When it comes to test day, you know what you know. The hard part is getting over the anxiety.

With all of the pressure to get top marks on all your exams, this can be a stressful time of year for your whole family. A bad DSE score can feel like the end of the world.

No matter how old you are, students and experts weigh in on the best strategies to make sure you do well and get through the next two months without too much worry.

Use positive psychology

If you are anxious before taking a test, try to visualise success, says psychologist Karen Cassiday, the board president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Think about a past situation in which you’ve been successful or overcome difficult circumstances, and focus on the things you are grateful for.

All the expert tips for your last-minute HKDSE revision

“What this does is help set a mindset that life is going well, there are good things out there, I can succeed,” Cassiday says.

Maria Malvar, a teacher and trainer at the US city of Miami’s Parent Academy, which supports parental involvement in school, has similar recommendations. “Be positive and just give yourself the ‘atta-boy’ talk: ‘You’ve done your homework, you’re going to be okay, everything has been taught,’” she says.

Stick with your routine

Any big changes in your routine around testing time could make you more anxious, Cassiday says. “Act like this is a regular, normal thing,” she said. “Keep a regular, normal schedule. Don’t make this high-stakes testing the event of the year.”

Of course, making sure you exercise, eat healthy food and get a good night’s sleep will also help you succeed, Cassiday says.

You should also make sure to get to school early on test day, said Malvar. Arriving late can add to the stress and result if you have to take the exam at a later date.

Don’t study ... at least not so much

For primary and middle school students, Cassiday does not recommend any extra studying for standardised tests. “I wouldn’t encourage someone to prepare until they actually have something to prepare for,” she says.

Lessons from HKDSE 2016

Older students prepping for exams should aim to study for 45-minute chunks with five to 10 minute breaks in between, Cassiday says. “One of the things we know is that most people, no matter how bright they are, can’t concentrate beyond 45 minutes,” she says.

Benjamin Burstein, who is in his final year at Miami Beach Senior High School, says his strategy for advanced placement tests – which enable students to get college credit for advanced classes – is to start early and go through two review books for each test. Benjamin takes extensive notes while he reads the first review book and then goes through the second one more quickly.

“The most important tip is just start early,” Benjamin says. “If you’re going to start preparing a week before, there are going to be issues. And then just do a lot of practice questions. It’s a good way to make sure you don’t get really stressed at the end.”

Giovanna Garcia, who will graduate from John A. Ferguson Senior High School this year, says she uses online flash cards to prep for tests. She also creates a study calendar for herself, designating specific days for specific topics. “I would say the best way to feel less stressed is to know you’re prepared and to have confidence in what you know so make sure you set yourself up for that,” she says.


Instead of cramming right before the test, laugh. Watch a funny movie with your family the night before, or listen to funny stories on the way to school in the morning. That gives your brain a shot of the neurotransmitter dopamine, Cassiday says, which can improve test performance.

“If you’re looking for how can you set a brain and mind to perform better, those things would be much better rather than doing extra studying,” she says.

Still worried?

If you’re still anxious about taking tests after trying these strategies, that could be a sign of more serious anxiety issues. If you continually asks your parents if you will do well on the test, or you can’t seem to enjoy your hobbies because of exam worries, you might have test anxiety, Cassiday says.

“When someone is choosing to study over having fun, something is going wrong in a pre-teen or a child or a teenager,” she said. Another sign, particularly for younger children, is having a meltdown or tantrum right before or after taking a test. In this case, you might want to consider talking to a psychologist or a school counsellor.

A low score is not the end of the world

In general, students and experts say the most important thing for getting through testing season is taking a deep breath and putting everything in perspective.

“Your life doesn’t depend on whatever score you get on the test,” Garcia says. “And when you think about it that way, it’s less daunting.”

Edited by Sam Gusway


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