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• 18.5% of students in top 1% nationally
• 48.2% of students in top 5% nationally

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Monthly Archives: October 2016

Counsellor’s Corner: Overcoming exam anxiety

Nicole Letch headshot
Nicole Letch, School Psychologist

Term 4 exams are a stressful experience and almost all Year 12 students feel nervous or experience some anxiety during this time. It is therefore perfectly normal to be feeling anxious right now!

Believe it or not, a small amount of anxiety isn’t bad – it’s actually helpful to be ‘up’ when preparing for and taking exams. For some people, however, too much anxiety – exam anxiety – can interfere with their studying, and they may have difficulty learning and remembering what they need to know for their exams. It can also negatively impact on exam performance, resulting in difficulties demonstrating what they know during the exam.

There are many different reasons why some people have exam anxiety. These reasons can include: overstating the importance of exams; pressure (internal or external); previous negative experience with exam-taking; fear of disappointing others; fear of embarrassment; focussing only on outcome, rather than improvement; having unrealistic performance expectations; poor preparation; and a lack of confidence or fear of failure.

Although each person will experience a different collection of symptoms with differing degrees of intensity, the symptoms of exam anxiety tend to strike in two places: in your head and in your body.

Signs of exam anxiety in your head:

  • mental blank-out
  • racing thoughts
  • difficulty concentrating
  • negative thoughts about:
    o past performance
    o consequences of failure
    o how you are doing compared to everyone else
  • knowing the answers after the exam, but not while taking it.

Signs of exam anxiety in your body:

  • diarrhea
  • nausea
  • feeling light-headed
  • perspiring
  • headache
  • dry mouth
  • increased breathing rate
  • fast heartbeat
  • tense muscles.

The good news is there are many effective strategies you can use to overcome the symptoms of exam anxiety.

Top 5 tips for overcoming exam anxiety

top-5-tipsSymptom 1: You panic as soon as you sit down and see the exam.

Tip 1: Learn about the exam and make a plan.

It sounds obvious enough, but the first thing you can do to deal with your exam anxiety is to make sure you know the basic facts about the exam well before you go in. How many questions are in the exam? What format are the questions in (e.g. multiple-choice, short-answer, exam, combination of all three)? How much time do you have to take the exam? How are your answers scored? What topics are covered in the exam? What do some of the questions look like?

Arrive at the exam with a clear plan for how you will start. When the supervisor tells you that you can begin, take a few slow, deep breaths, then take a minute or so to browse the paper, page by page, and look at the questions one by one. Note the point value of each question. Calculate how much time you should allow for each section according to the point value. (You don’t want to spend 30 minutes on an essay question that counts for only 5 points). Try to reserve 10% of your exam time for review (try to resist the urge to leave as soon as you think you’re done – review the exam, make sure you have answered all questions, proofread your writing for spelling, grammar and punctuation etc.).

Before the exam, decide how you will attack it. Will you: answer the questions you ‘know’ first to help build up your confidence for the harder questions? Answer the questions that have the greatest point value first? Answer the questions in order, skipping any questions you don’t know and return to them later? Know what works best for you. That way, on the day of the exam, there will be no surprises awaiting you – just the exam you have been preparing for.

Symptom 2: You allow the test environment to get on your nerves.

Tip 2: Tune out distractions.

The exam supervisor will try to make the environment conducive for taking an exam. However, the reality is that not all aspects of the environment can be controlled. Another student may have a cough or the sniffles, the room may be crowded, or the temperature may be warmer or cooler than you’d like. You can’t control everything that will happen there, but you can help minimise the distractions you might encounter:

  • Try to avoid arriving too early or too late
  • Just before the exam, don’t chat with others who catastrophise or who are ‘stressing out’. Nervousness and anxiety can be contagious. Instead, only chat with others who are calm and remind yourself that you are well prepared and are going to do well
  • Just before the exam, don’t try to learn anything new. By now you should know everything you need to know for the exam, so try to relax and spend the time reading the newspaper, listening to music or some other distraction
  • During the exam, don’t worry if others finish before you or where you think others are up to in comparison to yourself; just concentrate on your own exam in front of you

Symptom 3: You have negative thoughts.

Tip 3: Counter them with more balanced thoughts.

As we have discussed, it is perfectly normal to feel stressed about taking exams. However, they can be completely overwhelming if you feel your whole life depends on the results. It is important to remember that your marks don’t define you and that there are many different options, opportunities and career paths – there’s not just one path to your future.

Sometimes, our anxiety is the result of us falling into thinking traps. Thinking traps are unrealistic or overly negative ways of seeing things, for example, thinking: “I know I will mess this up”, “If I don’t get a good mark on this exam, my life is over”, “I’m not good at science”, “I’m so stupid I am going to fail”, or “I bet I am going to do badly on this”.

To overcome these thoughts, you need to first recognise when you are falling into a thinking trap. For example, can you really predict the future? Do you have a crystal ball? If not, then how do you know for certain that you will mess this up or fail this exam?

If you find yourself in a thinking trap, try coming up with alternative statements that remind you how you can cope in a situation. For example:

  • If I get anxious, I will try some calm breathing
  • I just need to do my best
  • I have sat many exams before and I know how to handle it
  • This exam is only worth 30% of my overall mark and the result of this exam alone will not determine my future
  • I know I can do this
  • Everyone experiences anxiety. I can handle this
  • I have prepared well to do this exam. I will do my best.

Symptom 4: Your body shows signs of anxiety.

Tip 4: Practise tension-release exercises.

When you feel anxious, tension can build up in your body. You need to learn how to break the cycle of anxiety by teaching your body how to release tension. But this is not something to work on the night before or during the exam! Practise the following techniques in the lead-up to the exam:

  • When we are highly anxious we tend to over-breathe (or ‘hyperventilate’) which leads to an imbalance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the brain. To correct this imbalance, it is recommended that you breathe from your tummy, not your chest, and in the counting pattern of 4-in, 2-hold, 6-out cycle – breathe in for 4 seconds (through nose, if possible), hold for 2, and then breathe out for 6 seconds (through the mouth, if possible)
  • When you feel your body tensing up, focus on a particular group of muscles (e.g. shoulders) and first contract them for about 10 seconds and then let them relax. Concentrate on the difference in the feelings and repeat the exercise, trying to get the muscles to relax more each time
  • Practise mindfulness meditation. Download the free app, ‘Smiling Mind’.

When you become proficient in these techniques through practice you will be able to use them during the exam whenever you feel anxiety creeping up on you. They take only a few seconds to do and can make the exam session a lot less stressful.

Symptom 5: You go blank and suddenly develop exam memory loss.

Tip 5: Use a memory retrieval strategy.

Many people get so nervous when they first open their exam booklet that they suddenly develop a severe case of ‘exam memory loss’. If you develop exam memory loss, there are a number of memory retrieval strategies you can try.

The first thing you should do is to take a deep breath and bring your level of arousal down. Just let your mind go blank, go with it for a few minutes breathing in and out as deeply as you can. Close your eyes if you like and just come around gently once your body is feeling more relaxed:

  •  A common symptom of exam memory loss is to stare down at the exam paper desperately trying to come up with an answer. There is some research which suggests that the position of our eyes affects which part of the brain we are accessing; and by looking up we access information from our memories. So if you are faced with a mental block, instead of staring down at your exam paper, look up as you try to retrieve that crucial information
  • Do a ‘mind dump’ – start jotting down anything you remember about the concept. Anything at all. Write down any formulas, facts, definitions and/or keywords. Can you think of a particular experiment or example that was used to illustrate the point? Did something unusual happen when you covered that topic? Can you ‘see’ the notes in your mind’s eye? Due to the power of association and the triggering of key words, this will help you access the information you need from the networks in your brain. Once you start writing, you are therefore likely to find ideas taking shape in your head. Then you can start to organise your actual response
  •  Instead of saying to yourself, “I don’t know this …. I don’t know this” and starting panicking (which makes you even more anxious), relax and say, “If I did know the answer, what would I write?”, and see what happens
  • If none of these strategies are working, skip the question and come back to it later. Don’t spend precious time agonising over something that will probably return to you as your mind is prompted by other material in the exam.

Sources and for further information:

Test Anxiety from AnxietyBC
Reducing Test Anxiety 

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Year 9 Camp – Rock Climbing, Abseiling and The High Ropes Course

Year 9 Camp – Rock Climbing, Abseiling and The High Ropes Course

The adrenaline fuelled Rock Climbing, Abseiling and High Ropes course at Woodhouse was an outstanding addition to our Year 9 camp this year. Participating in these challenging activities was as a highlight for many of our campers as an exciting conclusion to the Camp. The challenges required the girls to function outside their comfort zone, overcome fear, take calculated risks, work together as a team, trust their classmates, and dare to imagine completing things that most had never done before. The elation and pride in successfully completing these activities was almost tangible. The girls will certainly look back with great fondness at their time spent at Woodhouse on Year 9 camp.

Student insights:

“When rock climbing I sometimes felt frightened and couldn’t keep on but I still climbed to the top. At that time I felt very happy and had satisfaction. The other activities were very exciting to challenge myself.”

“I loved all the activities at Woodhouse but my favourite would have to be high ropes because I tried to push past my fear of falling off and trust that my team members would belay well. I also liked high ropes because it’s something that I’ve never tried before and when I first saw the high beam I backed out but I just thought if I don’t do it I’ll regret it and I did it.”

Year 10 Camp – ‘The Argadells’ in the Southern Flinders Ranges

year-10-camp-images

Camp was a successful week overall; we learnt many new things and overcame many challenges. The camp was held at a private property called ‘The Argadells’ in the Southern Flinders Ranges. We maintained a positive attitude despite the weather on Tuesday when a storm came through. Everyone was able to successfully complete each activity with a positive outcome.

We can all agree that abseiling and rock climbing was a new and memorable experience that allowed us to overcome our fears and step out of our comfort zone. It was ‘challenge by choice’ and many girls enjoyed scaling Warren Gorge with picturesque scenery.

Mountain biking was another challenging experience but came with a rewarding view of the Flinders Ranges. We also enjoyed exploring the natural beauty without too much physical struggle, unless we reached an uphill area. Hiking was fun for many groups, especially when reaching mountaintops with views on one side to Port Augusta and the other side around the Flinders. All groups enjoyed the return trip on Friday, with a bakery stop in Crystal Brook.

Year 10 High Performance class

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