Coping with exams amid COVID-19 pandemic: UP educational psychology expert offers tips for students

Posted on November 11, 2020

As a student, pursuing a field of study that will enable you to make a decent living is as important as actualising your central life theme(s). This will ensure that you experience a sense of meaning, hope and purpose in your life. In other words, finding out what you really want to achieve in life – not only what sort of marks you are trying to attain – will stand you in good stead.

Clarify your key life theme(s)

Once these themes have been identified, you will be able to clarify your career-life purpose.

“I never had access to medical care,” says Lebogang, for instance. “I want to work with people who are sick because of my keen interest in medical matters and my excellent achievement in life sciences.” This is an example of a mission statement. “I lost my father due to cancer. I love helping people with cancer. More than that, I want to help others that do not have access to medical help.” This is a vision statement that reveals the social meaning of her work.

This is an example of someone turning their pain, hurt, or suffering into triumph and a social contribution. Each time you help others that have experienced and overcome major challenges, you, too, deal actively with the hurt you have suffered earlier in life.

Gain perspective on COVID-19

Yes, it poses a huge challenge. Yes, all the negative talk about the virus and the safety measures that need to be adhered to take a huge toll – emotionally, socially, and physically. However, all of us have negotiated many challenges successfully in our lives. The pandemic is merely another one. We will survive the virus and become stronger because of having dealt with it.

Work hard

Accept that you will have to work hard – and actually work hard. Accept that success is greatly enhanced if you work consistently, plan ahead, use appropriate study methods, and believe in yourself. Remember, your level of emotional-social intelligence will greatly enhance your chances of attaining good marks and of being successful in your career and life.

Face emotional challenges

Acquire and apply strategies to prevent hurt, unhappiness, and distress from influencing your thought processes negatively. To achieve this, consult someone that you trust when you feel disappointed, angry, sad, or upset – if need be, consult a psychologist. Also be prepared to listen to others that need an ear.

While you’re studying, you might experience emotional challenges that are hard to ignore but cannot be resolved immediately. Write down the problem and place the note where you cannot ignore it – for instance, on the mirror or on your desk. This note will put your mind at ease and confirm what you already know: “While I cannot attend to this very important matter immediately, I’ve made sure that I will not forget to do something about it at a more convenient time.” That will give you the temporary peace of mind you need to be able to continue with the task at hand until there is sufficient time to address the primary challenge adequately.

Establish a social support group

Not having been involved in face-to-face classes for many months was not ideal. Take care to stay in touch with your support systems through a WhatsApp group or social media. Schedule dates and times for video or telephonic communication. It is very important to know that you have someone to speak to when the need arises. In addition, exchange ideas on things like how to relax, exercise tips, healthy eating habits, or how to prioritise activities. That said, limit your use of social media during exam time and cut down on the use of devices. Be sure to get good sleep – get help in this regard if you need to.

Helpful hints for parents, friends, and lecturers

To help students achieve the best marks they can, friends, parents, and lecturers should offer emotional-social support. Here are some tips that may prove useful:

  • Talk about COVID-19. Be honest, open, and try to be objective.
  • Be positive, use positive language, and try to encourage instead of blaming or nagging students. Remind them that an exam is just another transition they have to make. Ask them to try to recall how they navigated multiple challenges earlier in their life. Draw on the successful strategies they used at the time.
  • Assure them that they have access to support structure, and that you understand that examinations are stressful and that we live in extraordinary times.
  • Actively encourage students: talk, text, or phone them. Ask them about their feelings.
  • Help them to understand that a career is just a metaphor for a goal that is bigger than themselves, and that money is mostly a metaphor people use to reveal their feelings of insecurity. Or consult a career psychologist to help them achieve this aim. Understand that finding a job in itself means little – becoming employable, though, is key in these rapidly changing times.
  • Lecturers should empower students to integrate with society via the vehicle provided by ‘work’, to actualise their potential, and make social contributions. Above all, provide them with a sense of hope and purpose. However, explain that hope in itself means little. It is far more important to plan actively and to design action steps and concrete strategies to turn hope into action.
  • If a student exhibits suicidal tendencies (for instance, self-cutting, withdrawing, or becoming low-spirited), encourage her or him to consult a psychologist. Phone any of the helplines available on campus or the SA Depression and Anxiety Group, Life Line, or one of the suicide hotlines.

We can choose to look at the future through a lens of despair and approach exams from the perspective that it is not worth working hard because the future looks bleak. Conversely, we can choose to regard constant change as a source of hope and believe that a bright future awaits us – then plan and take action steps to actualise your belief in a bright future.

By Professor Kobus Maree of the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Pretoria (UP).

For more useful information, visit Prof Maree’s website:

- Author Professor Kobus Maree

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2024. All rights reserved.

COVID-19 Corona Virus South African Resource Portal

To contact the University during the COVID-19 lockdown, please send an email to [email protected]

FAQ's Email Us Virtual Campus Share Cookie Preferences