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Fit to sit exams


For many years, students have come along to the Psychological Counseling service to report on their experiences of examinations. We help. And we learn from it. The following article is based on this experience and is intended to help you cope better with stress before and during exams.
The semester is coming to an end and it's that time again: the exams are piling up. The result: inner tension builds up. There are some written exams with a failure rate of 50% or more, so this is hardly surprising. Aside from this, however, exams cause stress and stress increases tension.

Moderation is the key

Increased tension in an exam - or before it - is not a bad thing in principle. On the contrary: increased tension can even improve performance. But only to a certain extent! Beyond this, the situation becomes out of control and tension has an equally detrimental impact on performance.
Even in the run-up to exams, too much tension can bring significant problems in its wake: headaches, stomach and bowel complaints or problems with sleeping are not uncommon, or it can simply make you more susceptible to illness. It often results in difficulties in concentrating, or in anxiety and panic attacks just from thinking about an exam. This proves one thing: learning is not a purely cognitive act. Learning and emotions are closely interconnected! (This is also shown by findings in neuropsychology.) If you are aware of this, then you can use it to your advantage.

Blackouts and what you can do

The stress starts as soon as you begin reviewing for all your exams. The situation can become quite fraught if you feel that your intelligence - or even your worth as a person - is being tested in an examination. If any signal in an exam is unknowingly perceived as a signal of anxiety, it can then trigger the following reactions: the amygdala, the emotional memory, is activated in the limbic system. Stress hormones are released. Heart rate and blood pressure increase. And the body is poised for fight or flight. This can mean that we react with anxiety to something without even knowing why.
"I was really worked up, then the first question came up. And it was as if everything I knew had suddenly disappeared....!“ And afterwards: "I couldn't answer this question, what on earth will the professor think of me now! It's over, I need to get out of here.....“ The examiner's questions are still getting through, but the student is preoccupied with himself and the imagined catastrophe. The fatal consequences of this are that access to what has been learned continues to be blocked and the flight impulse becomes stronger.
There are nevertheless ways of counteracting this situation: the overreaction of the amygdala can be controlled by cortical mechanisms. This is because all parts of the brain are interlinked. We can use reasoning (cerebrum) to alter the nature and intensity of our feelings (limbic system). Analyzing and assessing the exam as a non-hazardous situation (prefrontal cortex) means that the emotion-activating function of the amygdala is suppressed.
Another important way of dealing with these anxiety reactions is to confront what is seen as a threatening situation - the effect of this is to turn the experience into a positive one and thus strengthen your self-confidence. This can happen in well-prepared simulated exam conditions, for example.
Be clear about the fact that it's not the end of the world if an exam fails to get off to a good start, or if something unexpected comes up during the exam. And try to concentrate on the examiner's questions and the subject matter. Take back the initiative. You should inform the examiner if you realize that you are unable to shake off this state of anxiety, because a severe anxiety reaction often causes the examinee to clam up and it is hard for the examiner to judge what the candidate actually knows.
The same applies to written exams: it is pointless to conduct internal monologues on how good or bad you are and whether you can manage, or to get annoyed about difficult assignments. Here too, it is just as important not to question yourself as a person if things don't run smoothly in written exams. It has nothing to do you as a person. Perhaps you do not yet have sufficient knowledge. Try to keep calm and refocus on doing your work (see above); you should be collecting points, not getting bogged down.

How should I behave in the oral exam?

We often hear: "I only say what's absolutely necessary, and only if I'm quite certain to make sure I don't say something wrong by mistake or talk about a subject that I'm not very familiar with." Or: "I wait passively, I would never think out loud or elaborate on contextual details without being asked. It could all be wrong." That's a bit like playing dead. It is common for this to turn into a tough, arduous and unproductive question and answer session.
But it need not be so. If you know something, it is far better to demonstrate it, to explain interconnections, to give examples and, in some circumstances, to think out loud. Actively. The exact opposite of playing dead, in other words! Last but not least, it gives the examiner a chance to follow your thought processes and to support you if you get stuck. You will find that he does this, because a fluent exam is more pleasant for him as well.

Time to reflect

Students often say: "I must answer a question immediately, it's expected of me. I haven't got time to think about it.“ After exam simulations, students in our counseling service are often heard to say that they spent far too long thinking and must have said nothing at all for 10 minutes. A subsequent analysis of our video recordings shows: it wasn't even 10 seconds.
Unless definitions are asked for - if your approach to a subject is sought for example - then a certain detachment is necessary. And that needs time. It may take time. Say that you are thinking about it.

1. Review your aims

It is clear that being well prepared is the best way to ensure exam success.
However, the desire to feel safe in an exam situation and to be successful often leads to an aspiration to learn the subject by heart and master it completely. A lofty aspiration! It entails ambitious plans! "Get up early every morning - work through, 8, 9 hours - stop seeing other people - allow no leisure activities." These plans always come to grief. They lead to feelings of failure and, quite often, to exams being deferred.
A more promising approach is to find out exactly what is required for the exam and then to make realistic, continuously reviewed plans. And under no circumstances to forget about leisure time. We are not study machines. Taking study breaks is proven to be essential when reviewing what you have learnt.

2. Revise the subject matter in different ways

We are better at learning things that we associate with stored knowledge, that stand out, that appeal to as many of the five senses as possible, that mean something to us and that use the capabilities of both sides of the brain. In many cases, taking notes is the only study aid used (linear and monochrome); this can lead to the brain switching off because it cannot find any keywords, colors or associations. It is well worth looking at memory techniques and above all: trying them out.

3. Practice out loud!

Many students preparing for an oral exam only practice the subject matter by writing it down, as with a written examination. They then find it difficult to compose a spoken answer to a question in the context of an oral exam. And yet this is so easy to practice. Even if it sounds silly, it is well worth speaking out loud and clearly when practicing. This will help you to concentrate more on content during the exam and not waste your energy searching for words.

4. Simulate the exam!

Working in simulated exam conditions is a crucial element of exam preparation. The more realistic the set-up, the more effective it is. Don't get upset if things don't go according to plan. Give yourself the opportunity to practice some more and to turn the exam situation into a positive experience. And it can even be fun if you work in a group.

5. The study group is important!

When it comes to preparing for exams, the study group and teacher supervision play a really vital role: An example from researchers: A study at the Dana Center for Mathematics and Science Education by U. Treisman on the significantly better academic performance of Chinese students compared with black and Hispanic students revealed that the Chinese students not only worked individually, but also met up regularly to compare notes.
A project was consequently devised in which group work was promoted in the same way as the development of communal life, with the focus on the shared interest in mathematics. The results were impressive! Not only did the black participants catch up with their white and Chinese peers, they also outperformed them!
Meeting up to exchange notes with fellow students, tutors and lecturers, doing sample papers, working in simulated exam conditions - these are all effective strategies when preparing for exams. The group is not just important for discussing technical issues. Constructive criticism, affirmation, recognition and solidarity strengthen social networks and are far more conducive to successful study than isolation and competition.

We wish you much success!


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