What are my issues about exams

What are my issues about exams?

Pause for thought:

Make a list of some of the significant experiences of assessment you can easily recall in 5 minutes. This might include exams taken at different ages, and also passing particular standards of achievement at sports ( swimming a particular distance; running at a particular speed;) or music, drama or a skill.

Beside each note how you feel about it now.

Consider how that experience has affected your expectations about achieving study goals now.


Review your list and think : Are your reactions to success and failure connected to any current concerns about this year’s exams? How do you feel about your capacity to take on your current course of study?

If possible, discuss what you have identified with a friend, fellow student or supervisor or DoS if it has raised matters you think may affect your approach to being assessed.


Panic in the exam?

Anxiety management is a key skill in exam taking

Some characteristic ways of approaching assessment and exams link to personal style, and the level of anxiety or distress you feel may bear no direct relationship to your ability. Once people have done the basic amount of work to complete the course, anxiety strikes right across the spread of ability. This can mean that people who are anxious get short shrift from supervisors, friends and relatives who may insist: ‘You’ve done so well, of course you will be fine.” There are two ways anxiety impacts on the student, however: You may pass in the end but suffer painfully in the process, and mind that others don’t appreciate what it costs you; or you may do significantly worse than your continuous assessment scores would lead you to expect.


Pause for thought: Am I a worrier?

Do you tend to feel optimistic that it will all be all right on the day, and therefore do too little preparation for exams?

Are you so relaxed in the exam room, that you make errors of OMISSION because of a lack of alertness?

Are you at risk of missing continuous assessment deadlines because you just don’t get around to starting work till too late ?

Do you do particularly badly in significant exams, and better in ones that do not count?

Does worry and tension affect your capacity to revise and remember?

If you feel watched do you freeze up?

If you do badly do you believe it indicates your lack of ability or your lack of effort?

Do you go over and over your continuous assessment work looking for what you may have got wrong?

Have you had a bad experience in an exam so that now you are anxious about exams even though you are not generally anxious?



Students may suffer in three different ways which affect their choice of strategy to manage it.

– They may be so laid back and lacking in useful sense of pressure that they do too little preparation, and are too casual in the exam room, thus making errors of OMISSION because of a lack of alertness, and being at risk of missing continuous assessment deadlines .

– They may be generally anxious , a worrier, who may do particularly badly in significant exams, and better in ones that do not count! The worry depresses their capacity to revise and remember. If they feel watched they may freeze up. If they do badly they believe it indicates their lack of ability, whereas more confident students are more likely to attribute a failure to lack of effort. They may tend to go over and over their continuous assessment work looking for what they may have got wrong.

– They may have had a bad experience in one exam and have anxiety specific to exams even though they are not generally anxious. They need to regain confidence and optimism . One way to do this is to attend an exam group, to get used to coping with the specific fears the exam room holds for you.


The knack is to have enough adrenaline to do your best, both in the weeks beforehand to gear yourself up for it by systematic preparation, and to turn in a peak performance well past your normal best on the day. It’s matter of channelling the tension into fast paced and well rehearsed performance.

The feelings of anxiety do diminish when you be

But how to manage this knack? It is easier said than done. Anxiety does diminish when you begin to feel a grasp of some of the material. More people are afraid of having a complete mental block than actually suffer them. The revision has to begin early for anxious people, before they become blocked by the fear, and be a slow, systematic and steady element of regular work on the course from week one; and ideally it needs to begin earlier than the laid back person would consider, too, to make the inevitability of the exam more real.

For each, for their different reasons, it is useful to identify your inner voice’s dialogue, and adapt it. For the ‘I’m bound to fail’ worrier, substitute more self encouraging phrases; for the ‘It’ll be all right on the day’ learn to add ‘ if I work systematically meanwhile’!


Getting the adrenaline right for your performance:

Most people suffer some stress; and a sleepless night or some early morning waking, butterflies in the stomach or a reluctance to eat much breakfast on the day is common. This level of pressure can work in your favour enabling you to think efficiently and rapidly sift options, plan, recall relevant material and ‘go for it’ . If you read about or observe any performer or athlete, they will say that it is the pressure of the task and the audience which helps them to turn in their outstanding performance. You need to use your examiner as audience in the same way: imagining them as critical but ready to applaud your work!


Humour can help as you prepare, too, so you do not feel so caught up in the distress. Some exaggeration of the more obviously unhelpful fears can make it clear just how unrealistic they are, and a bit of humour can defuse them and reduce your anxiety about them. Noticing what you do effectively in other areas of your life can serve as a useful reminder that you are competent, and you can transfer some of this competency into the exam work.


Panic which needs professional help to overcome:

There are symptoms which you should take seriously as signals that you could benefit from some help, in the weeks before the exam. eg If you have more than one of these physical symptoms: feeling sick and going off food for weeks before; sleep disturbances; tension, headaches, inability to concentrate, poor short term memory, fears for months of ‘not having done enough’ without taking action to retrieve the situation.


Panic in the exam , as in most performances ,is usually focused immediately beforehand and at the point of starting: difficulties with reading or understanding the question, recall of information, or inability to begin writing:

“ On the day I’m calm till I get here, then I start shaking; my mind goes blank; I start sweating;( I am now just remembering it!) As soon as I come out I find I’ve made silly mistakes. but once I see a question I can do I get a certain amount of recall, and then it gets better. The hardest part is getting going

Most students who panic report that once they can begin on an answer they can regain some control and then can do the exam. Thus their capacity to pass may depend on how quickly they can regain control and begin to work .


Typical items that trigger panic in the exam room are:

– Looking at the question paper and not being able to make sense of the questions; have no clue about what they might be referring to; have no access to the knowledge they know they have. ‘I feel numb from the neck up.’ ‘It’s as if my brain is behind a shutter.’

– The invigilator if he or she looks critical and judgmental or reminds the student of a stern teacher or critic.

– The clock whizzing round: Time passing/running out. ‘oh dear, I’ll never finish in time.’

– Other students asking for more paper” They are so clever and I feel so stupid and slow”

– ‘Giving myself away’ by the rough notes I’ve written: ‘The examiner will know how stupid I am.’ and ‘ I wish I could just tear it up and start again’.( Many exams expect candidates to put rough notes and essay plans in the exam answer book, and cross them out to indicate that they are rough notes. No other paper is provided.)

– Being unable to recall a key name date or formula


Pause for thought: Notice if you are not suffering from any of these, and rejoice! Even if you react to some you would be very unusual indeed if you were stirred up by every one, so notice there are some things which do NOT trigger panic for you!


Help for the person who suffers severe panic:

1 Get help if you have symptoms beforehand. Learn relaxation techniques well in advance of the exam via a class run in college or at the University Counselling Service, or through a Yoga group, or meditation or other similar technique.

Ideally, for anyone who is aware that they do get a strong panic reaction, the best time to begin learning and practising relaxation is at least three months before the exam. If you learn some techniques, and then practise them daily for no more than 15-20 minutes for three months, you can be pretty sure you will be able to control your reaction in an exam. Especially if you combine relaxation with visualisation ( see below.)

There are relaxation tapes available which are specifically designed to help reduce exam panic.


Ways you can help yourself:

There are a number of elements which you could tackle before the exam to decrease your anxiety :

–  Begin your revision early. Get support from a friend, or other student for pacing yourself, testing, noticing what you DO know, etc…….Notice what you do achieve in other settings which might indicate a skill you could transfer to the revision process . eg Collating information about where to go for a holiday!

– Identify and tackle YOUR triggers to panic, and which will affect your performance in the exam . eg You can make a list of 10 events or situations which create a sense of panic in you about examinations. It can be helpful to rank order it so that the most fearful is number 1 and the least is number 10. Then do some work by yourself or with a counsellor on relaxing and visualising yourself overcoming the least fearful first, and then one at a time each of them until you can picture yourself doing an exam confidently. ( This process is known as desensitisation, and uses imagination very effectively.)

One student’s list looked like this:

1 Turning over the exam paper

2 The invigilator not letting me go to the toilet

3 Not sleeping well because of having nightmares beforehand

4 Waiting to go into the exam room

5 Travelling there on the day of the exam

6 Another student asking for more writing paper

7 Discovering a pile of notes I haven’t looked at the night before

8 The invigilator saying “Only 5 more minutes”

9 Doing a mock exam

10 Picturing the exam room

As he worked up the list, imagining each till it held fewer fears, his capacity to prepare for the exam improved considerably.


– Identify your picture of a successful examinee. How do you feel about them? (Is your example a brother or sister or clever parent? smug? self satisfied? Someone whom YOU would not want to be like? ) If so, ask around to find or think of more likeable models!

If you see yourself as a potential failure,’ What would you have to change about yourself to picture yourself as successful. What would be the first thing you might try doing differently? How will you celebrate when you’ve done this? …


–  Think about the time you first felt panic in an exam. What has changed since then in terms of your ability to cope with demanding situations? ( You are older and potentially more resourceful)

Do you now have resources which you are not noticing because of the habit of expecting exams to be traumatic?


– Train yourself in the technique of starting an answer. Face yourself with a blank piece of paper and a new question and a 10 minute time limit, feel the pressure of it, and then start planning your answer and writing your introductory paragraph. Keep doing this till you’ve developed the habit of ‘instant planning’! This is like the building up of a well rehearsed routine for a show, or for soldiers under fire. You can do it automatically if you have drilled yourself sufficiently. Then you can polish the product as your knowledge is fixed. Because so many students who suffer from panic in the exam are most anxious at the point of planning their answer, this is particularly important for them, though it is useful for all examinees.

– Ask another student who does well in exams how they tackle them. See if there are any elements in their way of doing it that you would like to try. Using someone successful as a model is a well established technique for athletes, and can work for examinees too, particularly the least self confident ones.


– Learn to monitor your own tension level, and to identify where in your body you usually feel tension. ( common areas are in the stomach, headache or tight jaw, or back and neck knots). Predict when you may be anxious, and begin on your relaxation techniques immediately.



Stress management in the exam:

If you wait until you are flooded with adrenaline it will take your body 20 minutes to calm down again, so it is essential to interrupt the rise of panic as it begins. Practise calming techniques for when you are in the exam room:

Taking two or three deep breaths, relaxing and dropping the shoulders with a (quiet!) sigh. Shut your eyes for a moment and picture someone who loves you saying something encouraging. Open your eyes and get on with the task.

Or, as you become aware of your tension rising say firmly to yourself: “STOP” ! Take a few breaths and see if you have reversed the rising tension level.

Comments are closed.