Aiden has worked out his exam preparation timetable, carefully allocating how much time he needs to study each subject. He sits down at his desk in his bedroom to study each night but can’t get started. He checks Facebook, sends texts and generally procrastinates. His capacity to self-regulate his behaviour is limited.
Jessica is a conscientious student. She pays attention in class, does her homework and studies for exams. Seated at the exam desk, she reads the first question and has no idea of the answer. She goes to pieces. Anxious thoughts disrupt her capacity to think clearly.
These quite different behaviours can surprisingly be addressed through the same approach – mindfulness. Jessica’s stress reaction and Aiden’s procrastination involve thoughts, emotions, behaviour and even the body.
When we are stressed, the part of the brain responsible for survival becomes dominant (limbic system). The part of the brain vital to problem-solving, planning and self-management (prefrontal cortex) stops working so well.
But all is not lost. Jessica can learn to observe her anxious thoughts without getting caught up in them. She can implement strategies for self-calming and refocus on the exam. Aiden can become more aware of his avoidance patterns and understand distracting impulses without automatically acting on them.
A mindfulness approach supports students to engage with thoughts, impulses and emotions in healthy ways. Students can learn to stop identifying with feelings and thoughts. This takes practice.
Usually we believe our thoughts to be true when often they are not. We tend to act on everything we feel immediately. Through observing thoughts and feelings without judgement, students come to understand them and are not controlled by them.
The research into mindfulness and school students is increasing. Here are some of the benefits described in the scientific journals:
- Students with high levels of mindfulness have improved emotional responses to high-stakes exam situations. With lower levels of anxiety, students’ working memory is increased and performance improved.
- Students who participated in a mindfulness program and did daily home practice increased their reading comprehension scores, increased their working memory capacity and had reduced distracting thoughts. Their cognitive function and capacity to focus improved.
- Students who meditated immediately prior to a lecture and test had improved information retention and test scores compared to those who didn’t.
What can a student do now? There are different ways to develop mindfulness.
The first way is through mindfulness meditation. You can find good short mindfulness recordings here. 5-10 mins of mindfulness meditation every day is a terrific mental-health break.
A second way is through inserting a pause at regular intervals during the day. Ask the question: “What’s happening for me now?” In the pause, notice without judging what is going on – thoughts, feelings, body sensations. This strengthens self-awareness, vital for responding to stress rather than reacting to it.
A third way is through informal mindfulness practices. Simply pay attention to what you are doing, without getting caught in thoughts about it.
For example, when walking to the bus stop, pay attention to the movement of the body and the sounds, sights and smells in the surrounding environment, without any evaluation of what is observed.
What can a student do during an exam? To activate the relaxation response, take a few deep breaths and lengthen the out-breath. You can breathe in for a count of three and out for a count of six. Have a sense of releasing and letting go on the exhalation. It’s a bit like silently sighing.
A second way is to breathe in while making a fist with both hands and then breathe out while letting the hands unfold and allowing tension to drain away. This is a mini-version of the stretch and release technique often used by athletes.
A third way is to use encouraging self-talk. Jessica can tell herself; “I can just move onto the next question and come back later.” Experiment and see what works best. We are all different. Be kind to yourself too – it can help calm and motivate.
The reality is that year 12 exams are very stressful. Mindfulness is not a magic potion but with ongoing practice it offers a healthy, practical and caring way of managing the challenges. In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn; “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
 Bellinger, D. B., et al (2015) “Mindfulness, anxiety, and high-stakes mathematics performance in the laboratory and classroom”. Consciousness and cognition, 37, 123-132.
 Mrazek, M. D., et al (2013) “Mindfulness training improves working memory capacity and GRE performance while reducing mind wandering”. Psychological Science doi: 10.1177/0956797612459659
 Ramsburg, J. T., & Youmans, R. J. (2014). Meditation in the higher-education classroom: Meditation training improves student knowledge retention during lectures. Mindfulness, 5, 431–441. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12671-013-0199-5.
© 2016 Kathryn Choules and Fiona Gauntlett