Advice From Your Profs

A deeper look into the dreaded exam season

Carmel Dear (she/her) // Contributor
Tobin Eckstine // Illustrator

“Is there going to be a final exam?”

The first day of every class begs this quintessential question. Midterms and finals are often the most dreaded parts of any semester, synonymous with sleep deprivation, anxiety and burnout in even the most prepared of students.

“The end of semester is a natural point to examine knowledge,” said Dr. Sean Ashley from the School of Social Sciences. “On the other hand, the practice of scheduling all exams into a two-week period, alongside assigning papers that are due at the end of semester no doubt has negative impacts on mental health and wellbeing… Shorter, written pieces throughout the semester may well be more beneficial, though many instructors face structural constraints.” 

Whether at Capilano University or at a larger institution, the system is largely designed for lectures and examinations, and it has been for long enough that it would be extremely arduous to change. Ultimately, there’s no easy fix to eliminate exam anxiety under this structure.

“The way we go about scheduling [exams] and the weight that is placed upon them makes them highly stressful,” said Ashley. “This is compounded today by the heavy work schedules that many students have.”

Between balancing school, a part-time job, rest and a social life, many first-time students underestimate the amount of time they need to spend on their courses to get the most out of them.

“I always feel that stress is relative to preparedness,” said Dr. Ted Hamilton of the School of Communication. “In my first year, I never went to class, did none of the readings, faked my way through assignments and was otherwise pretty disengaged from the classroom learning process. I attended my exams that year out of a misguided sense that I needed to complete something and was basically physically sick with anxiety for about ten days straight before realizing that it was pointless to even proceed.”

Often, students go to class with one goal: cram in enough knowledge to do well on (or at least pass) their exams. But should this really be the end goal of education?

It’s vital to be critical thinkers and have a strong foundational knowledge of theory and be learned but I also think it’s important to apply the knowledge gained and transform them into experiences,” said Grace Kim of the School of Communication, emphasizing that life isn’t all about academia and that the practical application of knowledge is just as important.

While this is a great idea, most people have experienced feeling out of control when their workload piles up. If exams aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, what’s a student to do? 

Hamilton advises students to spend eight to 10 hours per week on each course. He counsels students to divide the maximum amount of hours they can spend per week on school (while balancing it with a job and social life) by eight for the number of courses to take in a semester. “This means your program will take longer to complete, but rushing through something so expensive and not getting the most of it… seems to be a real waste.”

On preparing better for assessments when they do take place, Grace Kim suggests joining study groups and to seek additional resources. “It’s always helpful to have a sound board and different perspectives. Group studying is a great tool to foster peer support and build a community. It’s also great to go to the academic resources around campus to find studying tips like active reading. Personally, I like to doodle and make personal connections, so reflections are very helpful.”

Hamilton corrected his mistakes after his first year of university, determined to return with better habits.

“I knew I had to treat [university] like a job and not just as a break from reality,” said Hamilton. “I committed to doing the work from nine to five, five days a week.” He also religiously took notes, completed readings and attended office hours, finding that the professors he met with engaged much more deeply with his work. “[They] were able to help me more because they knew the kinds of questions I was asking and the things I was struggling with,” he said.

With the proper techniques and school-life balance, exams don’t have to be monsters. As students learn to navigate their education and how it fits into their lives, once-terrifying exams may pose less of a threat in the future.

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