After 20+ years of being in school, I’ve done my fair share of homework assignments, pop quizzes, and final exams. The four main lessons I’ve learned to manage stress and perform at my full potential are: be confident (C), organize (O), prioritize (P), and energize (E).
Up until the 7th grade I was told, “math may not be your thing”. I was in lower level math classes my whole life and was discouraged from trying to switch to a higher level where some of my friends were (I felt left out!). It wasn’t until I had an amazing teacher in middle school that took the time to understand how I learn best that I truly felt confident in math class. A year later, I petitioned the school to switch to the higher-level class and over ten years later I now have a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering.
While this may seem like a rare case, the lesson is ubiquitous. Confidence is everything. Humans have an incredible capacity to learn new information, but we’re told at a very young age what we’re good and bad at without giving our brains a chance to prove them wrong. Whenever I’m anticipating a daunting exam or am trying to learn something completely new, I start by remembering how far I’ve come in my education. Having confidence (and patience!) in yourself will help you manage frustrations and anxiety.
After I’ve psyched myself up for studying with words of confidence, I start organizing. I personally am a very visual learner, so I collect all of the information I have on the subject (class notes, worksheets, homework, textbooks, etc.) in one large pile and I begin to group things together based on subject matter. Breaking down a large amount of information into digestible chunks can also help mitigate the feeling of being overwhelmed. I then go one section at a time and don’t move on to the next section until I’ve fully understood the previous one. If I’m really stuck on a section, I’ll flag it with a sticky note to remind me to get extra help from my teacher or tutor.
Another way to prevent being overwhelmed when studying is to prioritize. For example, if I have a Chemistry exam coming up and the teacher says it will focus mainly on Chapter 3 and 4 with only a few questions on Chapter 5, I prioritize studying Chapter 3 and 4. While studying is many times an art form, it can also be hacked. Ask your teacher the right questions: What will this exam cover? What fundamentals do I need to understand before I can move on to more complex concepts? This will help you figure out what you should focus on first, which is especially helpful when you’re in a time crunch.
One of the most important things I’ve learned about myself is that I’m a morning person; I have the most energy between 7:00 and 11:00 in the morning. I am rather lucky because as a society, we have rewarded morning people with early school start times and typical 9 AM – 5 PM working hours. However, all humans are different. There is a theory floating around that being a “morning person” or a “night owl” is actually a genetic trait -one that was potentially useful back in our hunter-gatherer days when members of the pack had to keep watch 24/7. What I’m trying to get at is: you know best when you have the most energy. Try to use that to your advantage. During low energy periods of your day, work on easier to complete tasks and during your high-energy-window, focus on learning new concepts and studying for challenging exams.
These four strategies have helped me cope with studying stress and I hope they work for you as well. Learning is a life-long process that extends beyond schoolwork and I believe confidence, organization, remembering to prioritize, and finding your energy will help us all succeed in the long term.
-Bailey Risteen, Ph.D.