For any student, April is always a dreaded month. It is the time of final assignments and exams. If you are like me, any given week on your calendar has multiple highlighted tasks that need to be completed, and all of them are important. Talk about feeling the pressure; needing to put your head to the grind stone and stay completely focused.
For the past four years while attending university, I also worked at the Institute for Health and Human Potential. I am not going to lie; at times this was difficult. Having an assignment due in every class and working twenty hours a week definitely made for some late nights, but honestly, I don’t think I would have been as successful if it wasn’t for all the things I learned from my job.
The Institute for Health and Human Potential has taught me how to perform under the pressure; whether it’s finals or a presentation in the middle of the semester.
For students reading this blog post, here are some strategies we teach that can help you be successful too! (They can be found in our New York Times Best Selling book; Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing your Best when it Matters Most).
Downsize the Importance:
My first strategy to successfully perform under the pressure of school is to downplay the importance of whatever assignment it is that I am working on at the moment. There are so many ways that students perceive the importance of an assignment. For example, if it is a group assignment, it is important that you do not let your group down. If an assignment is worth 50% of your mark, that becomes very important to you. It could also be important to make your mom proud of you and therefore you feel you need a great mark. This thinking is dangerous. The more important we think something is, the more pressure we feel. And pressure distorts our thinking, reducing our cognitive thinking abilities and increases impulsive behaviour. This may be why when you have a major paper to do or an exam to prepare for you find yourself taking a nap, drinking with friends or binge watching Netflix, all the while telling yourself you are just living “the student life.” To avoid this trap, I tell myself it is just another assignment, that I am not defined by my marks and most importantly that my mom loves me no matter what grades I get. I know this thinking seems impossible but with some practice you too can see every assignment as just another assignment.
Another strategy that I find helps me perform under pressure (and helps me to downsize the importance) is reminding myself I have multiple opportunities. Throughout the course of the semester, every student is graded on a handful of assignments, so no one assignment is going to “make or break” my mark. While working on an assignment I always tell myself that if I am not happy with my mark it is ok because I have another paper, test or presentation. I hear what you are saying; what about when it is your final test or paper for the semester and you are not happy with your mark in the class. You do still have multiple opportunities (just maybe not in the most ideal way). If you don’t do well in a course you can take it at another time. This will not be the only time that this course is ever offered.
Use your Positive GPS System:
Whenever you explain your pressure over an assignment to someone their reaction is ‘you will do well’. In the moment this can seem annoying, that they are not really hearing your pressure, but in fact they really are being helpful. I go into every assignment with a positive attitude, the belief that I can get the grade that I want. Having a negative attitude increases your anxiety and fear of failure which makes you more stressed about the assignment, which makes you more anxious and afraid to fail. It becomes a vicious cycle.
I always envision the mark I want and how I am going to celebrate that mark. This helps me to stay focused on getting the assignment done. Yes, it still is a lot of work to complete the assignment but I feel calm doing it. Thinking how happy I will be with my mark at the end is the light at the end of the tunnel.
Recall you at your Best:
I don’t just tell myself I can do well on an assignment; I think about a time that I got a great mark on a test or rocked a presentation. This thinking provides me with confidence and I know I can get a good mark because I have done it before. This helps with positive thinking because then it does not just feel like lies that I am telling myself. As my confidence in my abilities to succeed goes up, my anxiety and fear of failure are further decreased. You are awesome. Sometimes we just need to remind ourselves of that.
Here and Now:
Every student writing an exam has had a moment where you started to panic, calculating how much time you have left, thinking about how many people have already finished and are worrying about failing. This kind of thinking does not lend itself to success. When completing any assignment, whether it is a final exam, paper or presentation, you are more successful by keeping your thinking on the here are now.
If you catch you mind wondering to your past mistakes or anxiety around future outcomes, there is a couple things you can do to bring your thinking back to the here and now. First, think about your breathing. Is it fast or slow? If you are breathing fast, work on slowing your breathing down. Next think about what you see? What do your eyes focus on? Then move on to what you hear? What sounds are around you? Going through these questions will help you calm down and become focused on the moment. Now that you are calm, let yourself think positively about a time you did well, then look back at your exam or paper and focus on the task at hand.
It is good practice to go through the here and now questions several times a day. This will increase the speed at which you are able to bring your thinking back to the present moment and therefore allow you to start performing at your best, that much faster.
Succeeding in school is about learning to perform in pressure moments, since school really is one pressure moment after another. And this learning is something that will continue to set you up for success long after graduation. Especially since there is so many pressure moments that follow graduation: applying for jobs, interviews and starting a new job. If you are ever looking for a great book to pick up, I recommend Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing your Best when it Matters Most. Knowing you have a pressure moment coming up, you can flip through section two and find a strategy that resonates with you and will help you perform better in that moment. Happy studying.