The exam season has started for university students, with schools and colleges not far behind. I’ve only invigilated 3 exams so far, but already I’ve seen a number of young people stressed out of their heads at a level I struggle to imagine.
So. this week I thought I’d reflect on some good exam techniques and some bad ones. Now, I appreciate that what works for one person might not work for another, and that I don’t have diagnosed needs around sensory issues, but I’ve done A LOT of exams in my time, some of them well, some of them badly, and I’ve supported a lot more students through their exams. While what I have to say might not work for all, there might be a gem or two in here.
To be clear, exam prep is not just about revision. In fact, if you have been paying attention during the year, I would argue that revision is (or should be) the least important aspect. So, my first tip:
One month before the exam
- If you have an entitlement to special arrangements, make sure they have been put in place and you know exactly what they are in plenty of time. Can you have extra time? Access to a PC? Rest breaks? Assistive Tech? A Scribe/Reader? Make sure you know, and make sure you know how to use them. If you have a scribe, see if you can meet them in advance. Practise using them. If you don’t practise, you will break them, then they cry, and it’s embarrassing.
- Check the rules. If you are not allowed to take a glass bottle into the exam hall, make sure you have a plastic one. If you haven’t been to the room before, do a dry run – how long will it take you to get there? What is the backup plan if the traffic is bad? Arriving late robs you of time and unsettles everybody.
- If there are practice papers available, do them – in exam conditions. Send your housemates away, turn the music off, and have a go. Set yourself a timer and be ruthless with yourself. You will never replicate exam conditions perfectly, but you can get an idea of what doing 1000 words in an hour feels like. Practice picking your questions, planning them. Especially if you have essay questions, a skeleton plan is never a waste of time.
The week before the exam:
- Your revision should be nearly finished, just a quick refresh of the key points should bring the rest flooding back. At this point, it is more important to eat healthily, sleep well and get lots of fresh air. If you are normally a night owl and your exam is at 9am, this is your last chance to start moving your body clock round so you don’t feel like a zombie.
- If you haven’t been there before, do a dry run of the journey.
Go and stand in a set up exam hall. How does it feel? How does it look? Does it smell odd? If you have sensory issues you might want to think about how these things might impact on you and take constructive steps now. Ask for a room change, wear some Vick under your nose. You’re intelligent; you can help people help you.
- This is the point where nerves can start kicking in. There are a number of strategies for this. I work best with distraction – keep busy, take your mind off it, count your blessings. All aphorisms, but all work for some people. You might want to meditate, pray or practice other mindfulness and relaxation techniques. You can find my alternatives to the traditional ones here
The day before the exam:
- Do NOT cram. If you don’t know it by the night before the exam, you aren’t going to be helped by trying to ram it all into your brain at the last minute. All you will do is stress yourself out. There are exceptions to this rule. I had a student who knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep the night before an exam, and would set up an all-night study session in the library for anybody who wanted to join her. Personally, I think this was effective because of the camaraderie and not because of the cramming. And yes, I did once have to wake her up during an exam I was scribing for.
- Eat sensibly throughout the 24 hours before an exam. For some people appetites can be impacted, but an exam is a marathon, and just like a runner you need some protein and carbs to see you through. I know those who swear by a fry up the night before an exam, or even on the morning, but that’s a bit full on for me. I do advocate a poached egg on toast for breakfast on the day of an exam though, or something similarly slow burning.
- Pack your bag. ID pens, pencils, specialist equipment if applicable. Drink (in acceptable container), snack if allowed. Got 2 exams tomorrow? Pack a healthy lunch or make sure you have both the time and the money to get one.
The morning of the exam:
- Leave plenty of time to get there.
- Just because you have special arrangements, be aware that you don’t have to use them. If you have a PC, but are happier on paper (and you can be understood), write on paper. If you don’t need your rest breaks and it would interrupt your flow, don’t take them.
- Remember, invigilators and teaching staff are human, and they are probably a bit nervous too. The computers don’t always behave, there can be issues with paperwork. They want you to have the best exam experience they can provide you with, while also making sure you stay within the rules. Cut them a bit of slack – be kind to each other. There might be 4 of them to look after 200 of you!
An exam does not have to be a bad experience. If you put the building blocks in place, breathe and keep it in proportion, you will be ok. And I know, I seem like a smartypants – PhD, member of Mensa. Exams must be a breeze for me, right? Wrong. I did re-sits for my Alevels, and once scored less than 25% on a mock. I was taking myself far too seriously, putting myself under too much pressure, expecting to do badly, and that’s exactly what showed up. Your next exam is always the most important exam of your life, but there will be other chances, other ways to show what you can do, so give yourself some wriggle room, and try and find the intellectual adventure. That is the best exam prep you can do.
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