Education

Exam time-stress could be reduced through mindfulness training

Exam time-stress is a huge issue for all students out there, but scientists have shown that mindfulness training could come to the rescue helping and supporting students at such times.

A randomised controlled trial carried out by researchers at the University of Cambridge showed that anxiety and depression increase as students reach higher grades. The number of students accessing counselling services in the UK grew by 50% from 2010 to 2015, surpassing the growth in the number of students during the same period.

Mindfulness training has been garnering a lot of interest lately from those seeking mental wellbeing based on the practice of meditation. Studies have shown evidence that mindfulness training can improve symptoms of common mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

In the study 616 students took part and were randomised across two groups. Both groups were offered access to comprehensive centralised support at the University of Cambridge Counselling Service in addition to support available from the university and its colleges, and from health services including the National Health Service.

Half of the cohort (309 students) were also offered the Mindfulness Skills for Students course. This consisted of eight, weekly, face-to-face, group-based sessions based on the course book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, adapted for university students.

Students were encouraged to also practice at home, starting at eight minute meditations, and increasing to about 15-25 minutes per day, as well as other mindfulness practices such as a mindful walking and mindful eating. Students in the other half of the cohort were offered their mindfulness training the following year.

The researchers assessed the impact of the mindfulness training on stress (‘psychological distress’) during the main, annual examination period in May and June 2016, the most stressful weeks for most students. They measured this using the CORE-OM, a generic assessment used in many counselling services.

The mindfulness course led to lower distress scores after the course and during the exam term compared with students who only received the usual support. Mindfulness participants were a third less likely than other participants to have scores above a threshold commonly seen as meriting mental health support. Distress scores for the mindfulness group during exam time fell below their baselines levels (as measured at the start of the study, before exam time), whereas the students who received the standard support became increasingly stressed as the academic year progressed.

The researchers also looked at other measures, such as self-reported wellbeing. They found that mindfulness training improved wellbeing during the exam period when compared with the usual support.