We tend to consider exams difficult, adding pressure and concern as the outcome is uncertain. It helps to put exams in context – they are part of the learning process. It is helpful to reframe the meaning of exams and view them as assessments or learning practices, to manage the emotional reaction to the word “exam”.
Exams are a form of self-testing, where we recall content and write about our understanding of it. Imagine it as a process where you communicate what you have learned so far. Focus on sharing your knowledge, and although grades are essential to pass a module and get your degree, thinking about results is distracting. When you notice these thoughts, view them as a sign that exams are important to you as you want to do well in your degree.
When you notice worry thoughts that distract you, pause and breathe. It will help restore balance so that you can think and access the material you revised. The pressure comes from focusing on the results, and the more distant good grades seem, the more tension, reducing the ability to access the content and its meaning.
When thoughts are about possible negative scenarios, bring your attention back to the present, breathe mindfully, and drink a bit of water to restore balance. View them as just thoughts, they are not facts. Then, focus on narrating what you understand of the topic. Reducing tension increases your ability to access the material you have revised. As you are writing, think of it as a work in progress.
Being prepared is an effective way to deal with the pressure before the exam day. Create a study routine to manage your time and energy – revise consistently to get into a rhythm. As you study the material regularly, it will help to develop familiarity with the content. Keep in contact with your purpose and prioritise what matters.
If you notice it is difficult to persevere with revision, identify what prevents you from studying. For example, is it that it feels like too much work? Or are you worried about results? As you notice these feelings, acknowledge them and view them as part of the human condition. It is normal to experience a degree of unease and apprehension when dealing with a challenge and an uncertain outcome.
The human brain has a remarkable capacity to learn complex tasks. Connect with your learning experiences – you learned to read and write, and it took significant effort and practice to develop the skills. When learning new things, we push ourselves outside of our comfort zone, so it will feel uncomfortable and frustrating, particularly when noticing slow progress or facing an obstacle.
We need to maintain our energy to manage our emotions and persevere with our efforts. It is helpful to maintain an optimistic attitude where we have hope and trust in our ability to learn.
Taking exams on campus
This year, some exams will take place on campus while others will be online as last year. Now that you are more familiar with online exams, you may be wondering about taking a timed exam in an unfamiliar environment.
It has been a long time since most students have taken exams on campus. It is normal to feel apprehensive about them as it is an unfamiliar situation. The pressure builds up when waiting to go into the room, and others start talking about what could be in the exam and what they studied, triggering a wave of distress when you cannot remember some of the content mentioned. It can unsettle and raise the tension you experience.
It is best not to talk about the exam content in the queue and focus on maintaining your balance through mindful breathing and reminding yourself that you have revised and prepared as much as possible.
When in the room, it can feel unsettling to wait for the moment to begin. Once you can open the booklet, take a moment to read the questions. If you cannot think of anything at first, remind yourself to breathe slowly, take a sip of water, and visualise yourself writing and telling your story of what you learned. Imagine you are writing a draft, so start writing anything that comes to mind related to the subject – as a warm-up exercise.
The idea is to begin to get a sense that you can remember something, and gradually you will be able to access the content you revised. Starting with a few ideas will begin to focus your mind. Train yourself to bring your attention to the moment and then start answering the question as if you were explaining the material to a friend. It will ease the tension, allowing you to access your creativity and problem-solving skills.
It is essential to look after yourself – taking breaks to replenish your energy. When we have a lot to do, we may feel guilty if we take a break because we have limited time. However, breaks are essential to restore energy. Healthy habits and a daily routine will allow you to maintain motivation and the ability to focus. Make a note each day of what you have covered – keep track of your revision to remind yourself that you have dedicated time to understand the content.
Bandura, A/ (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
Cottrell, S. (2015) Skills for success. Personal development and employability. (3rd Ed.) London: Palgrave, Macmillan Education.
Dweck, C. (2017) Mindset. Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Updated edition. New York: Ballantine Books.