If you are undertaking any course that has an exam as a part of the assessment process then ultimately your success on the course depends on your performance during just a few minutes or hours in that exam. And your performance there will depend on two key factors:
- How much you can remember about the different topics.
- How well you can apply that knowledge under exam conditions.
Unfortunately the latter can be seriously undermined if you suffer from exam nerves.
Now you may be very comfortable about sitting exams and you may have a history of success in various exams at various levels, in which case this blog will be of little interest to you. So stop reading and move on. Yes Tracy I do mean you.
Alternatively, you may be one of the majority who do get nervous about exams. The nerves may start quite a few days before the exam. They may kick in just the day before. You may be unfortunate enough to be severely affected by exam nerves; you may have your sleep disturbed for several nights before, be unable to eat much on the day and be unable to think clearly during the exam itself.
Exam nerves are a natural response to psychological stress. The long-term anxiety you might experience is in anticipation of the event. The queasiness, fast heartbeat and inability to concentrate on the day itself are an adrenalin response – the fight or flight reflex. What your body is telling you to do is run away or punch someone. Hopefully you will do neither.
There are various things that you can do as you prepare for the exams that might help you to deal with feeling anxious in the build-up and the nerves on the day.
During The Build-up:
- Work at it – if you are dedicating time and effort to the revision and exam preparation process then that should provide you with some confidence. If all you are doing is worrying about the exams but you are not actually putting in the preparation time then that’s time wasted. Worrying does not solve the problem. Work does.
- Take breaks – total immersion in exam preparation is mentally and physically demanding. You need downtime. You should plan to take breaks during the build-up to the exams, even if it’s just to watch TV or read a book. Breaks are essential for stress relief and keeping things in perspective.
- Socialise – and talk about it. Socialising is another great stress-reliever in and of itself and talking about your concerns is a good way of bursting the bubble. As the saying goes: “a problem shared is a problem halved”.
- Exercise – your mental efficiency is linked to your physical wellbeing. So exercise and keep up your normal sports/ fitness routine if you have one. If you don’t have one then now might be the time to start. Physical exercise is another great stress reliever as endorphins produced by the brain produce a natural high.
- Believe – a positive mental attitude counts for a lot in exams. If you are diligently doing the preparation work then that hard work should pay off. Believe in yourself.
- Be prepared – if you have a plan for how you are going to prepare for the exams and you have your strategy worked out for the exams themselves, then all you have to do is put that plan into effect. Well prepared candidates have no need to get stressed. They are ready.
Just Before and During:
- Last night revision – do some light revision the evening before. But keep it light and look over a wide range of topic areas. Avoid getting stuck into the detail of one topic area. It might not come up and it will cloud your mind with detail. Keep busy the evening before.
- Good night – get a good night’s sleep. If this means you need to take time out to get some physical exercise so that you are physically tired, then do it. You don’t want to feel fatigued before the exam. Fatigued people have more difficulty controlling their emotions.
- Get there early – it may not be that nice a feeling to get to the exam venue and sit around waiting for 30 minutes for everyone else to arrive, but it is infinitely more desirable than the enormous stress of running late. And if you turn up late for most exam start times you may not be let in the room.
- Food and drink – your mind may be on higher matters, but your body has some basic needs. You won’t function effectively if you ignore the basics. Your brain uses a huge amount of energy and it needs that energy in simple sugar forms. Eat complex carbohydrates (e.g. pasta and rice) the day before the exams to build up your energy reserves. Eat sugary foods (e.g. chocolate) on the day for immediate energy. Bananas are great for slow release over a period of several hours (hence why popular with tennis players during matches). Similarly you need to stay hydrated to stay effective. But avoid drinking too much tea or coffee before the exam. You may need caffeine to wake you up, but caffeine speeds up heart rate and may exaggerate the sense of panic that you feel as a result of adrenalin being released in your body. Water is always good.
- Think positive – it is vital that your state of mind is positive when you are in the exam room. If you start to undermine yourself when you are in the room, this can quickly spiral into a vicious cycle of doubt and uncertainty. This will not help your performance. Try the visualisation and affirmation experiments below.
- Breathe deeply – control your breathing by taking in a deep breath, holding it for five seconds and then exhaling. This keeps carbon dioxide in the lungs for long-enough to suppress rapid breathing and the sense of panic that accompanies it.
- No post-mortem – if you are sitting two exams close together (e.g. on two consecutive days) the gap between the first and second exams is NOT the time for a post-mortem on the first exam. This gap is for you to rest, get some food and drink and take a break from hand-writing. Do some last minute revision. But keep it light. Keep focused and stay positive.
Try this exercise when you are in a relaxed frame of mind, on your own in a quiet location without any distractions.
When you do this exercise it is essential that you feel calm and in control. To get in the right frame of mind think back to an occasion when you felt exactly that – calm and in control.
Picture the scene in your mind. You are sitting in the exam room with a desk in front of you. You are surrounded by other candidates all furiously writing. The invigilator is sitting at the front of the room. It’s very quiet and you can hear the tick of the clock on the wall and the rustle of papers.
You are writing an answer. You pause and check the clock. You go back to writing. You finish off the answer and start on the next question. You start to apply the exam technique; read the question, key words, etc.
You feel calm and in control. The exam is going well. You have answered most of the questions already and you know they are good answers. You are spot on time – just one more answer and then a quick review of the whole paper. Then it’s in the bag.
This is what it is going to be like for you.
Think about this image often and in particular feel how calm and in control you are sitting in that room doing the work.
The more you imagine yourself in the picture, the more you will make that the reality.
Language has a huge impact on the way we think and feel. Simply saying words out loud can change our emotional state and the way in which we think about ourselves. This subconscious ‘self-talk’ can be modified using this exercise. Try it – you might be surprised.
Try speaking the following affirmation to yourself a couple of times a day in the build-up to the exams. Use it on the day too.
“I like exams – I like the sense of total mental calm and focus that they bring and I like passing them.”
You have to say this out loud. Just reading the words doesn’t count!
Repeat this exercise until you know the words by heart. Say them often to yourself, but always with the image of yourself sitting in the exam room feeling calm and in total control.
And Finally Ronnie…
If someone asks you how you feel before the exam, smile and tell them you are JUST FINE.
Or repeat the above affirmation to them (but don’t be surprised if they stare at you).
DO NOT TELL THEM YOU ARE NERVOUS. It may sound a trivial matter, but saying the words creates the emotional state and your emotions are what we are trying to control here.
Dr Jim Phelpstead BSc, PhD, CMIOSH
RRC Consultant Tutor