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Taking time out to exercise, playing music in the background and, er, bluffing ... how we coped with exam stress


For the thousands of young people across Northern Ireland sitting GCSEs, A-levels and university finals over the next few weeks, this can be the most testing of times in every respect. Kerry McKittrick asks some well-known faces for their tips for dealing with the pressure.

‘Regular breaks get the blood flowing’

Ian Huddleston (51), who is the president of the Northern Ireland Law Society and splits his time between Belfast and London, says:

"There are a few things that come into my head when you mention exams. The first is the weather. Throughout all of my exams, as far as I can remember, the weather has been fantastic. I grew up on a farm outside Downpatrick, and there's a chestnut tree that I was able to chart my academic life by. At this time of year, when I was sitting exams, it was just blooming and then the conkers would have been on it when it came time to go back to school or college.

I've done my O and A-levels, my bachelor's degree, a master's and then my law institute exams.

I do listen to music when I study. Invariably, when I've been about to sit exams, there has been one track on the radio that will have been played everywhere at that particular time. When I did my master's at Bristol, it was a Tracy Chapman song and I heard it absolutely everywhere. It happens every time.

I always felt it was important to take regular breaks, so I would do a bit of exercise to get the blood flowing - you can only retain so much knowledge in a certain period of time.

My main advice surrounding exams is about what not to do. David Trimble was my lecturer at Queen's when I was studying trust law. I wasn't overly keen on it and it was the one exam I took shortcuts through. I knew I hadn't done well.

The funny thing is that trust law is now quite a bit part of my law practice. It's important to remember that the thing you might not like when you're studying might become very important in life. If I had to go back and do it again, I think I might pay more attention."

‘I like to have soft jazz on’

Professor David Jones, who is pro-vice chancellor for education and students at Queen's University and lives in Belfast, says:

"Everybody has their own experiences with exams. They're very stressful for schoolchildren and right the way through to students at Queen's. I walked out of my pharmacy degree finals vowing to never sit another exam in my life. It's now 30 years later and I only sat my last exam three or four years ago, when I did a part-time degree in mathematics.

My biggest fear about exams - and it does happen - is that you work really hard, but when you go into to sit the exam your mind goes absolutely blank. I had one experience when I was going over a paper full of mathematics and realised three-quarters of the way through it that I had made a big mistake.

I didn't know what to do - waste time correcting it or just go on to the next question.

What I have learned is that if you really love a subject, the exams get easier. There were subjects at school that I didn't enjoy and I remember not being confident about them at all.

When I study I always listen to music, but it has to be a certain type of music - you can't just put on Megadeth and hope for the best.

I like nice soft jazz music, which is great to have on in the background. I would only study for 35-40 minutes before having a break, perhaps to go into the kitchen and get a cup of coffee or a glass of water.

My methods of learning have changed over time. Doing a pharmacy degree, you need to know a lot of facts, so I used flashcards for that. When it comes to other subjects, I try and break things down to a number of points at a basic level, and then I can build on those facts. If you can do that, then you've probably got it."

‘A day off is a real must’

Rebecca Maguire (25), a model and former Miss Ireland who now lives in Belfast and works as a pharmacist, says:

"I did my GCSEs and A-levels, then went on to do my degree in pharmacy at Queen's University in Belfast. That was a master's degree, so it took me five years. After that I had to pass a registration exam to enable me to work as a pharmacist. I sat my last exam around this time last year, though I'm sure there will be more to come as I progress in my career.

Of course, there is a lot of pressure when you're studying a subject such as pharmacy - for my finals I had five exams, and if I had failed just one of them I wouldn't have gotten my degree.

I have my own strategies to help me cope with studying. Managing time is important, so I always book a whole month off my modelling work in the lead-up to exams. Then for those four weeks I will study for 12 to 16 hours a day. I don't know if that's a sensible thing to do, but I've always found that I need to shut everything else off and focus on the exams. I don't listen to music as I revise as that would ruin my concentration.

However, I'm also sensible about pacing myself - I break for meals and try to eat well. I also tend to go to the gym at some point during the day.

I always take one day off a week and don't go near the books at all. Instead, I'll go out with my friends - that means I have a break at the end of the week that I can look forward to.

The worst thing about exams is the good weather, which is always a certainty the week before the exams and the week when you are sitting the papers.

Exams can put a lot of pressure on people. I have worked until my fingers have literally bled over my papers. I also know people who have kids and have to study, and I fear to think what it's like for them."

‘I needed the radio playing’

Claire Allen (40), a novelist who lives in Londonderry with her husband, Neil, and their children, Joseph (12) and Cara (7), says:

"I went to the Ulster University at Jordanstown to do my first degree in modern studies in the humanities, then did a master's of journalism at the art college - the latter I remember very clearly because we had eight exams in the space of six days, which was pretty tough.

I didn't get stressed about exams because I didn't find them that difficult - I was a real swot. I always had to have the radio on while I studied - I still do even when I'm writing today. I was the person who had all the index cards. Someone told me that your brain doesn't really retain more than seven points on a particular subject, so I would break down every essay or topic into seven main points and take it from there. That seemed to work for me.

The only exam I got really stressed about was my shorthand exam in my master's of journalism. You can't break that down into points - you can either do it or you can't.

I didn't love exams, though - who does? I just approached them in a very methodical way, and it really helped that I loved the subjects that I was studying.

Exams are terrible things, but when you're through them it's such a sense of achievement."

‘Winging it was my thing’

Noel Thompson (60) co-presents Good Morning Ulster on Radio Ulster and lives in Belfast with wife Sharon. They have two sons, Matthew (29) and Patrick (24). He says:

"I sat all of the usual exams - O-levels and A-levels - and then I went on to Cambridge to study modern languages.

I do remember in Cambridge we had to sit a load of exams at the end of the first year. I was studying French and German and the German lecturer was terrible so we didn't pay much attention to him.

I remember one night going into the hall to have dinner and sitting down beside my friends who studied the same subject as me. They asked me if I was ready for the German literature exam the next day. I asked them if they meant the one that was next Monday and, of course, I had got my days wrong and the exam was the following day. It was bad enough for me, but my friend was in London visiting his parents and I had no way of contacting him - I think he got back at one in the morning and stayed up all night.

I did a few hours work before realising that I would have to wing it - to be honest that was probably the theme of my exam success.

I can't remember if I passed that paper, but I ended up with a 2:1 and no one was more surprised than I was.

I was always able to learn a few key quotes and bluff after that. I did French, German and political sciences, so I didn't have that many facts to learn.

The last time I sat an exam was about five years ago - I did my grade five music exam in piano. Most of the people in the room were about nine. I played my first piece - Bach - better than I'd ever played before and muddled through the two other pieces and somehow managed to pass it on the marks of the first piece alone. I decided not to put myself through that again!"

'Give yourself no excuses’

SDLP MLA Claire Hanna (36), is married to Donal and they have three daughters, Eimear (5), Aideen (3) and baby Niamh. She says:

“I did my GCSEs and A-levels, but I didn’t do my degree until a bit later. I did international studies part-time with the Open University and then my master’s in law and governance through Queen’s University.

It meant that I was juggling jobs, politics and family while I studied — particularly when I was doing my master’s.

When I’m revising, I need no distractions whatsoever. During my master’s, I used the Pomodoro technique — there’s even an app for it. It times you as you study for 25 minutes and then you take a five-minute break. After four cycles of that you get a half-hour break.

The only problem is that you can be distracted by your phone sitting beside you, but it was a great way for me to keep focused.

An even better way for me was to take myself off to the library at Queen’s. There was no housework to do or kids around and even your phone usage is limited. I made sure I had everything with me — water, snacks, tea in a flask — so I had no excuse but to work.

When doing exams, the best thing to do is to consolidate — reduce facts or concepts down to bullet points and once you have those down you can build it up from there.”

‘Scribbled notes help me recall things’

Robin Swann (46), MLA for North Antrim and leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, is married to Jennifer and they have two children, Freya (6) and Evan (4). He says:

“I did a sciences degree in reverse — I did the most intense unit first. It was a certificate in professional management and once I had completed that I realised I was a third of the way towards a full bachelor’s degree, so I started to work towards that. The whole thing took me about eight years.

I need noise when I study — either the radio or TV on. I need to be distracted to get stuff to sink into my head. The other technique I use to study is to scribble notes — they might not be legible, but by writing things down I can remember them better.

Even today when I want to remember a figure or some facts, I’ll write it down using a sentence or a diagram.

It creates a little snapshot for me to remember.”

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