No student wants to spend months and months preparing for their exams, only to struggle to recall their study material while writing. Dr Gillian Mooney, Teaching and Learning Manager at The Independent Institute of Education, South Africa's leading private higher education institution, gives some insight into how best to manager a mid-examination meltdown.
“Writing an exam can be a very stressful experience for many learners, even when they were diligent in their revision,” she says.
“Teachers and parents should, as their final act of support before pen is put to paper, empower learners to know what to do should they be confronted with a mental void when they receive their papers,” she continues.
An exam environment can feel unfamiliar and daunting, and the setting itself can be enough to stress learners out.
“The environment is often a formal one, with rules about where to sit, what you can do, and what you can have with you. It is quite normal to experience exam nerves in an examination venue. However, sometimes students can become so overwhelmed that they cannot remember the material that they have spent many hours reviewing. This can lead them to feel even more panicked and stressed,” she says.
To avoid runaway nerves, learners should do the following in the minutes before the clock starts:
- When receiving the paper, carefully read through all the instructions and every page on the paper, and then re-read all the instructions. This will give you a sense of what is expected of you. Remind yourself that even if you do forget some details, it is unlikely that you will completely forget everything.
- While reading through the paper, mark all the questions that you can answer. Start with these questions first. This will give you some confidence and allow your mind some time to process, as well as start accumulating some marks for the paper.
If you still feel overwhelmed, take the following steps in order to gain equilibrium and confidence:
If you feel panicked, take long, slow and deep breaths. This will calm you physically. Getting the physical panic under control is an important step in calming your mid.
Once you have calmed your body, it is time to calm your mind. Give yourself a mental pep-talk by repeating to yourself, "I am calm. I have worked hard. I know my work." You can also give yourself this pep-talk while you are taking deep breaths.
Get Back To Business
Once you are feeling a bit calmer, go back to the questions that you believed you could not answer. Try to jot down anything and everything that you can remember about the work you studied. You can always cross this out to indicate that it should not be marked.
If you can't remember any of the material, use some memory tricks to help you. For example, try to visualise sitting in class when the work was covered, or try to picture yourself in your study area with your notes in front of you. Sometimes thinking about the context can help you remember it.
Reconstruct Your Memories
If you are able to jot down some notes about the material, review these notes and see how the information that you have remembered relates to the question. Try to reformulate your notes into a response to the question that was asked.
Look At The Big Picture
Keep in mind that what you are usually marked on is your ability to answer the question. In the worst case scenario, where you cannot remember a single piece of information from your course material, simply try to answer the question from a common sense perspective. You may realise that you do actually know a bit about the question and may be awarded some marks for your general knowledge. Doing this may also prompt you to remember your work.
“Staying calm is your most important weapon in the exam room,” says Mooney, “as is keeping a sense of perspective at all times, and endeavouring only to do your best in whichever situation you find yourself.
“You need to remember that you generally have more than one opportunity to perform in a subject. For example, you may write more than one paper for any one subject, and your year marks also count towards your final mark. If, in the worst case scenario, you do fail the exam papers, and your year marks, you may still have the opportunity to apply to re-write the subject.”
Try to remember that getting worked-up will not help the situation, so do your best to remain calm and level-headed.