Saturday, 23 November 2013

Strategies to avoid exam stress and anxiety


As we have noted in earlier blogs on this site, exam stress and anxiety is built into this mode of assessment. That's partly because the exam is typically a two or three hour endurance test in which you are deprived of home comforts and familiar supports. For many students exams present an image of clinical discipline and dehumanisation. Sitting exams may also cause you to revisit similar occasions in the past that involved a traumatic sense of disempowerment, defeat and failure.

But despite the huge potential downside of exams presented in these terms they do mimic real life experiences where you may have to work under pressure, use your wits, or demonstrate that you can plan and manage your time. Exams are here to stay!

Nonetheless, it will be helpful to recognise that there are some common anxieties that exam candidates experience. They may fear that there isn't a question that they can answer, or they may fear being seized with writer's block as they stare at a blank page. In other common cases, students often fear that they have not written enough, or that they failed to complete a section of the exam.

If this type of situation has affected you it is essential to practise your timing, and to write model answers. You can also practise opening and closing paragraphs for essays. Familiarity with key words and phrases also helps to speed up writinng.  These techniques will save you a lot of time.

Don't copy other students who write a book in the exam. My experience has often been that the students who write a 9 page essay, often filling up an entire answer book in the first hour, are typically prone to verbal diarrhoea; they are simply writing down everything that comes into their head, without any sense of structure or agument. Such answers rarely pass! A concise and well thought out response is more likely to be rewarded by an examiner who is tasked with 600 scripts to mark in less than three days.

Several years ago I attended a self-defence course in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. After several weeks of training delivered by an ex-SAS officer it became clear that what we were learning was not how to fight back using martial arts, but rather to avoid conflict situations altogether. By planning and reading the signs of danger, we would avoid actual risk of harm to ourselves. This scenario is similar to exams. The first strategy is to plan your revision early, familiarise yourself with the format of the exam by looking at past papers, and by writing model answers. If there are topics that you do not understand you can check out the solutions with your teacher, if you have begun your revision at an early stage. This approach should allow you to ensure that you have covered a sufficient range of the topics outlined in the course syllabus.

By avoiding the disastrous and always risky 'night-before-revision-stay-up-all-night' policy you will already be on the road to cutting out by far the most common and most significant source of stress that affects those students who leave everything to the last minute.

Another kind of stress exists in the exam itself. By scrutinising past papers it is far less likely that the exam will harbour unpleasant surprises. Andat this point let me also declare that the old-fashioned policy deployed by examiners that involved catching you out seldom applies these days. Rather, examiners want to find out what you have learnt, and want to see you demonstrate your knowledge and understanding. Exams are generally designed as a fair and representative examination of the syllabus.

In terms of general health it is a good idea to practise positive thinking. Remember that there is no such thing as someone who is symptomatically, characteristically, or psychological bad at exams. But there is poor technique and inadequate preparation. As my other blogs have been demonstrating, techniques consist of skills that you can work on and improve.

Another health tip is to practise breathing exercises, light physical activity, and meditation. These will help to calm your mind and body.

Immediately prior to your exam it is not sensible to make sudden life changes. Don't start a new diet or stop smoking, or start learning to bungee jump, or parachute. Stick to sensible leisure patterns, avoiding excess and getting as much sleep as you need. Sleep has a noticeable healing function.

After the exam avoid the temptation with friends to undertake a forensic diagnosis of your performance in the exam. I often experienced a vague sensation that I had not performed well in the exam. Yet the reality was more that I was simply tired, having delivered a high level of concentration for three hours. Worrying about the exam you recently sat will cause more anxiety as your next exam approaches.

Finally, keep a sense of proportion. Often there is an opportunity to re-sit a failed exam. Sometimes 'failure' is a sign that you should change direction. Also many famous and successful people have not passed some exams during their time at school, college, or university. Many academic educational specialists have also argued that exams do not test your underlying academic ability or your potential. So don't let the grade achieved brand you for the rest of your life. It is also true that those who are brilliant at exams do not always fulfil their potential in life.

Just do your best, and do it for yourself. You might even enjoy it!


Dr Ian McCormick served as Professor in the Arts at the University of Northampton. He works as a teaching advisor in educational creativity and participatory methodology. He also enjoys reading literary fiction, and writing about disability and the grotesque. His PhD was in the field of English literature and cultural history.  

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences

(Quibble Academic, 2013) 


 

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