Many students may not be able to perform well in exams. Their free flow of knowledge and the ability to express clearly what they know may be seriously inhibited by exam conditions and so they may give the impression that they are not competent when they really are. So factors of temperament and ‘nerves’ come into the equation, too. An essential part of developing an exam mentality is to be able to use the stimulus of the situation to key yourself up to maximize performance without allowing that tension to breed a level of anxiety or stress which becomes counter-productive. Or worse, metaphorically speaking, ties your hands behind your back.
The first quality one must develop is the ability to keep calm. The panic-stricken attitude may be as much a cultural expectation as an anxiety response. This culture of personal ‘panic’, which is evident in many important life situations from the job interview to appearing in court or making a public speech, is simply overcome by some clear thinking and self-training. The panic response has no value whatsoever. Being keyed up or nervous before a big event is fine, that ensures you function physically and intellectually at the peak of your capacity. It is this peak performance that we need to work on, like tuning a well-engineered motor engine.
Uncertainty may take the form of not knowing the venue, what questions will be asked, whether your paper will be marked fairly, what people will say if you fail and so on. To overcome uncertainty and unfamiliarity you need to fill in as many of the gaps as possible. Ask questions, go and look at the exam venue, find out where the toilets are – or how your paper will be marked. The causes of much unjustified anxiety can be laid to rest quickly and permanently by a little exploration. Too many young people are frightened to take that step so they quiver with nerves instead.
Know your physical cycle
Another part of exam trauma concerns your confidence in yourself and your fears that for some reason you may be under par physically and unable to perform to your best standard.
We are all subject to daily, monthly and seasonal cycles, and profoundly influenced by these unseen checkpoints. Diurnal rhythms determine that we reach a peak of activity and intellectual capacity usually around mid-morning. Our lowest ebb occurs around 3 am with another trough 12 hours later in the mid-afternoon. We peak again, depending on fatigue from the day’s activities, in the evening before relaxing into a night’s sleep.
These daily cycles may be affected by many outside factors: broken sleep, too much or too little sleep, sleep at the wrong part of the cycle, coffee or other stimulants, alcohol or other recreational drugs. Others include passing illness caused by bacterial or viral infections, travel (especially air travel through different time zones and the response to a seasonal change this can bring about), even sporting interests or commitments.
Yet, despite all these potential upheavals and the direct physical effects, top sports people manage to perform with almost surprising consistency in different time and seasonal zones after exhausting air travel. So can you when it comes to exam times. Knowing that diurnal rhythms have a powerful effect on your performance means you can maximize the beneficial effects by using a little common sense. But there’s more.
Alongside the short-term, daily rhythms of life come the monthly cycles which, particularly for young women, may have a profound effect on their stamina and capabilities. An exam that coincides with the onset of menstruation for some girls can be a devastating event. Boys, too, perform better at some times of the month than at others, though the physical consequences are less evident.