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The best exam tips from Leiden’s student psychologists

Are you a school or university student, and do you feel very anxious before and during exams? Take advantage of these tips by Leiden student psychologists, from how to stop ruminating to how to conquer a black-out.

Taking exams and final exams can be a tense affair, but the tension need not get in the way of a good performance. In fact, a healthy dose of stress helps you focus on your task. Research shows that physical stress (nervousness, dry throat, and nausea) has little effect on performance, but that worrying and rumination get in the way of clear thinking. Luckily, there are techniques you can use to keep your worries under control.

Keep worries for later

Sometimes there’s nothing for it but to accept that you doubt your abilities, but do try to avoid doubting yourself during the exam. Don’t suppress your worries, but postpone these thoughts for later. Your slogan could be: ‘Later, not now’. As an emergency measure, you can quickly jot your thoughts down during the exam, and then turn the sheet over. If need be, bring along a card on which you’re written a slogan or drawn a worry stop sign on the card and turn it over.

Write down realistic thoughts

If you can, choose a good point in time before or after an exam for this short exercise: write down your worrisome thoughts once again and next to them write down a few realistic thoughts about your year-long preparation and all the tests you’ve already passed. Weigh the two against one another. Do this yourself, as this tends to stick better in your mind. When other people say ‘You can do it!’ you may feel triggered into thinking ‘But I can’t, because…’

Distract yourself briefly in case of black-out

A black-out means certain information becomes unavailable to you for a while. Here’s what you can do about it. Stop frantically searching your mind, as this only strengthens the block. Move on to the next question, take a break, go to the bathroom, eat or drink something. If you’re well-prepared, the information will come back to you by itself. Incidentally, you don’t need to know everything, only enough.

Answer multiple-choice questions in layers

Answer multiple-choice examinations with lots of questions in three rounds. First answer all the easy questions and ignore the difficult ones. In the second round, do the difficult questions. Finally, answer the very difficult ones. Make sure you answer all questions. You should pick the best answer (even if it doesn’t seem 100% right). First read the question and the answers carefully. You’ll usually see one answer that’s clearly wrong. With some further thought you’ll be able to eliminate a second answer. Now look at the question again, and decide which of the two answers left best suits the question. Only make changes at the end of the exam if you’ve really discovered something new.

Understand what’s being asked in open questions

Read all the questions through and make brief notes of things that occur to you as you read. Sometimes all the questions are worth the same number of points, in which case, start with the easy ones and work your way to the difficult ones. This will help you get going. When answering questions, note whether you’re being asked for your opinion, or for facts and/or a theory. Are you expected to write an essay, or to give a short and concise answer? You can first write your answer on a draft sheet. If the answers are short, there’ll be enough time for this. Try to make precise claims but avoid time-consuming formulations. Finally, check your answer. Does it contain all the essential information? If you don’t know something, try to write down what you do know. This can win you at least a few points.

Thorough preparation is the basis for success and confidence

There’s no better guarantee of success than thorough preparation. Some people say ‘It’s all about the exam. That’s when you’ll find out whether you know your stuff.’ But that’s a sure way to worry unnecessarily. By the time you get to the exam, you’ll have passed many tests that will have shown you where you stand. All this knowledge doesn’t just disappear. Did you ever wake up in the morning to find out that all your mathematical knowledge had leaked out of your head onto your pillow during the night? An exam is only one step in a long process of preparing and testing your knowledge of the materials. It’s good to aim for a high mark, but try to relax if this wish causes you too much stress. Try to reassure yourself with the thought that you’ve practised a lot to perform this difficult trick. It doesn’t have to be perfect; a pass is good enough. This will allow you to focus more on your exam than on your nerves.

See below for Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to stress, or read the article on the conference on stress and burn-out among students organised by Leiden University on 7 May.

Do's

Don’ts

Realise that the exam is one step in a much larger process and the result doesn’t depend on the last few hours

Keep learning until the very last moment

Divide your time, take the time to think, pause when needed, have something to eat or drink

Rush through the exam questions

Ignore other people’s negative talk or ask them to stop

Get triggered by others: ‘Are you nervous yet?’ ‘Did you hear only half the students passed last time?’, etc.

Build self-confidence: think of all your preparation, tests, etc.

Rely solely on others to reassure you: ‘You can do it!’

Take your time to think about the questions

Panic if you don’t immediately know the answer

Skip really difficult questions and come back to them later

Get stuck on a question/assignment you don’t know the answer to


Good luck!

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