Revise, refresh and relax

Everything you need to cope with stress effectively, be prepared for your exams, fuel your body and mind to get through your revision and keep calm and focused on exam day.

By Tanja van Wie 

It’s exam season and learners in high schools, colleges and universities across the country are experiencing increased pressure as the exam timetable creeps closer. If you are a student reading this, you know exactly what this feels like, and if you are a parent, relative or partner to someone facing exams soon you have probably noticed an increase in crankiness, irritability, negative self-talk, sleep disturbances or even depression in that person. (Be understanding and supportive, their stress is very real!)

The good news is that feeling stressed from the pressure of exams is completely normal. When you experience stress, your body starts to produce adrenaline to prepare for the ‘fight or flight’ response. Adrenaline causes physical reactions in your body including an increased heart rate, sweating, chest pains, nausea and trembling. In this situation ‘flight’ is not the ideal option, so brush up on our 10-step strategy to stay and ‘fight’ the exams – this is a battle that can be won!

Did you know?

Mild to moderate stress, is an important motivator. It helps keep you alert and energised to study, but too much stress can be bad as it pushes up your anxiety levels, which in turn creates fear and panic.

1Understand your motivation

Certain factors influence how much exam stress someone feels. According to a recent study, high risk groups include perfectionists, students who struggle to understand the work or students not motivated to learn or prepare for an exam (“Exam Stress”, If you fall into any of these categories speak to a parent, teacher or lecturer about ways to help you work through these challenges. 

Intrinsically motivated students, who find reward in an activity itself (such as learning how the body works) will find it easier to focus during exam preparations. Extrinsically motivated students are driven by external things (such as a goal, a parent nagging or a reward). It can be harder for these students to stay focused at exam time. If you fall into this category set mini goals for yourself while studying, and reward yourself when you reach them. 

A third influencing factor is a student’s belief in their ability. If a student believes their academic ability cannot change, they may feel a lack of control over exams and be unable to cope with additional demands. It is important to understand and believe that one’s academic ability can be increased with effort and planning. When a student believes in their ability they feel more in control, and this leads to more effective preparation.

2Claim your study spot

A lazy boy recliner plonked in the far-right side of the lounge is not a suitable study spot. You need to find a proper environment in which to study, and that may mean shuffling items and furniture around to accommodate a study area. Choose an uncluttered table, in a well-lit and quiet place to work and try playing soft classical music if it helps you to concentrate. Ideally you should not work on your bed as your body and brain know this is a sleeping environment.

3Your study plan

Draw up a revision plan as soon as you receive your exam timetable. You should ideally allow for at least four weeks studying and two weeks revision. Once you have drawn up a rough revision plan, take each subject and break each section up into realistic study sessions to make sure you have allocated enough time for all your work. Also allocate more time to difficult topics and subjects. 


• Plan 50-minute study sessions with a 15-minute break in between into your daily schedule. 

• After three hours take a 30-minute break and take a brisk walk, a run, swim or any other activity that gets your energy levels up.

• Plan two full days or one full day and three evenings for relaxation or other activities per week.

4Know your learning style

Fundamental study skills include understanding, memorising, making summaries, studying with a specific goal in mind and rehearsing work with a friend. 

There are a variety of study techniques that apply to the three main learning styles that help make studying easier and more effective. These styles are visual, auditory or kinaesthetic (tactile).

The more senses we use to learn something, the more likely we are to remember it. The more we use the information, the easier it is to recall and access it.

• Visual learners learn best by seeing. They are usually good at faces but may forget names; they think in pictures; learn best from visual displays, prefer to take comprehensive notes, need quiet study time, like to read, memorise by seeing and often close eyes to recall information or spelling. 

Take notes and summaries, use cue words, highlighters and coloured pens to summarise, make mind maps, acronyms and visual chains and use the computer to organise materials and to create graphs, tables, and charts.

• Auditory learners learn best by hearing. Characteristics include reading and talking out loud to oneself. They are not afraid to speak in class, are easily distracted, often found humming or singing, they read slowly, and cannot keep quiet for long periods. 

Use word association to remember facts, watch videos on the subject, repeat facts with eyes closed, participate in group discussions, rehearse what you’ve learnt with a friend, record notes after writing them and make up and repeat rhymes to remember dates and names.

• Kinaesthetic learners (or tactile learners) learn best by doing. Tactile learners are good at physical activities. They like to problem solve by physically working through them and enjoy handling objects and working with their hands. They may study with loud music on, fidget while working and like physical rewards. 

Study in short blocks, study with others, use memory games and flash cards to memorise; to be more active during studying pick up the book you are reading, pace while learning and write while you are reading or talking. Use gestures to recall information and use a computer to reinforce learning using your sense of touch.

5Sharpen your concentration 

Our concentration span is the length of time we can focus on a specific task before our mind starts to wonder. To help ‘refresh’ your concentration take a 10-minute break and get moving to boost your circulation or think about something fun to give your brain a new focus. While studying, be mentally active by looking to answer the what, who, where, when and how of the topic as you read.

“Preparation is the key to success.” Alexander Graham Bell

6Food for thought

With your brain operating at maximum capacity, it’s critical that you give it the best brain fuel possible to help you learn. Start with keeping your blood sugar and hydration levels stable by drinking plenty of water, eating regular small meals and snacks and cut down the sugary comfort food, fizzy drinks and coffee you probably want to reach for. 

Added stress can deplete your vitamin and mineral levels so take a good multivitamin with added B vitamins that helps boost your energy levels. Consider taking an additional brain supplement rich in Omega-3 fatty acids good for brain growth and function as well as mood. Ensure that all your meals include plenty of brain food.


Breakfast: Oats with yoghurt and a fruit, or a scrambled egg on seed bread with tomato slices.

Lunch: Cheese and avocado sandwich with lettuce and cucumber, and an apple.

Dinner: Roast chicken with vegetables and rice.

Snacks: Wholewheat crackers with cottage cheese, or yoghurt, or fruit and nuts.

10 great study-aiding foods:

  • Wild Salmon 
  • Egg yolks
  • Peanut Butter 
  • Wholegrains
  • Oats
  • Blueberries
  • Beans
  • Colourful veggies
  • Milk and yoghurt
  • Lean meat or meat alternative

7Rest easy

Stick to your revision plan and avoid the high levels of stress and anxiety that result from being unprepared and out of time, or resorting to pulling ‘all-nighters’, which result in poor learning, stress, and exhaustion.

After long periods of study do something relaxing to take your mind off your material. Read a book or chat to a friend. Stick to your revision plan, which should incorporate 7–8 hours of sleep every night and ensure that you get a full night’s sleep the night before the exam.

8Family support

The best thing that parents and other family members can do is be supportive, tolerant and observant of your child during exams. Ask your child what they are specifically worried about and help them tackle these challenges. Also, watch for signs that your child may not be coping with the added stress. 

Make sure your child is taking regular breaks, exercising and eating well. Offer to go over study notes or encourage your child to explain sections they have learnt to you. Also stock the kitchen with healthy snacks and ensure they get plenty of brain food at breakfast and in their lunchboxes. Be a calm supportive influence, offer to bring refreshments and ensure they can study without noise and distraction.


  • Ensure that children complete homework and assignments throughout the year. Always encourage them to ask questions if they don’t understand the work but be aware of any struggles so you can assist or find a tutor.
  • Make sure each child has a quiet study spot with everything he or she needs – from highlighters to notepads.
  • Get involved by going through notes with your children, letting them explain what they have studied or asking them questions about the learning material to check their progress. Remember not to get frustrated and to remain supportive.
  • Although study groups can be beneficial don’t just rely on them. Your kids still have to commit the learning material to memory on their own.
  • Help children set achievable goals for each study session to help keep them motivated. Achieving these goals deserves a mini reward.

9Relaxation methods

Ensure that you control your stress levels with several relaxation techniques. Get into a routine of going to bed at a reasonable time and make time for regular meals, fun and exercise. 

After long periods of study, unwind by doing something relaxing before going to sleep at night. If you feel anxious put some calm music on, close your eyes, take 10 slow deep breaths, and visualise a calming scene or location. Try to use the onset of anxiety as a reminder to relax. Say a cue word such as ‘calm’ as you exhale and drop your shoulders. The repetition of this cue word brings a level of relaxation and eases anxiety.

10Ready for D Day

On the day of the exam, eat a good breakfast such as oats or poached egg on wholewheat toast. Get to the venue with plenty of time to spare but avoid negative speculation from friends before the exam. Take a bottle of water into the exam room to keep hydrated as anxiety can make you thirsty. 

When you are seated be aware of rising anxiety, take slow deep breaths and remember your cue word ‘calm’ on exhaling. Read through the paper underlining key words and instructions and work out how much time you can spend on each question based on mark allocation. 

Start with a few easier questions to help you relax and boost your confidence. If you hit a blank close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and wait a few minutes. If nothing comes to you move on and come back to it later. If you have time re-read answers and make changes, cross out notes, check your calculations and correct spelling. 

After the exam celebrate that it’s over and that you have done your best, then move on! Do not dwell on what you might not have got right, turn your attention to the next subject. 


  • They are an opportunity for you to reap the benefits of hard work.
  • They are there to test your knowledge, not to ruin your life.
  • If you are well prepared there is no reason to be afraid. 
  • They teach you to take responsibility for your own actions.
  • They show you the importance of forward planning and how to overcome obstacles.

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