Agony aunt: exam anxiety

May 25, 2001

Q : The exam season is upon us and anxious students are asking for advice on the best way to tackle unseen exam questions. In what ways can I help?

A : Frankly, it is a bit late in the day for students to be asking for advice on the best way to tackle unseen exam questions. But pointing this out is not going to help them become less anxious.

With essay subjects, a helpful way of proceeding is to show them last year's paper in their subjects - having first checked that this year's paper is not going to be materially different in structure or coverage - get them to choose a question and rough out the headings and sub-headings of the answer they would write. Even if you are not familiar with the subject, you should be able to see whether they would actually be answering the question, whether their approach is systematic (do they plunge directly into their answer or do they have an introduction that considers the question and how best to answer it?) and whether they have identified assumptions that need teasing out or particular words and phrases that require thought and discussion. If not, point them in the right direction.

Check whether they have an idea of what particular teachers/examiners will be looking for: a sustained argument; lists of pros and cons; wide reading and awareness of current debates; marshalling of relevant evidence and the drawing of reasoned conclusions from it; evaluation (which requires some notion of what criteria should be used); reproduction of what they have been told in lectures; and the candidate's own thoughts. If they have put in some work during the academic year or semester, they should have picked up clues about what is wanted.

If there is still time for some last-minute revision, suggest that at this stage the task is not to cram more stuff into their heads but to unlock what is already in there. A useful approach here is cross-referencing, matching up material from books, articles and lecture handouts with their own notes and coursework on the topics they are going to concentrate on.

In the exam they will assemble and present these materials. It helps many students to use big sheets of paper (flipchart size), use coloured pens and markers and Post-Its, make lists and draw "spider" diagrams to see how things fit together. I do not recommend practising timed essays at this stage, unless they want to turn what should be a dance into a plod.

Anxiety will also be assuaged by reminding them of basic rules for coping in the exam. Tell them to note how many questions there are and any restrictions if a paper is divided into sections. They should keep an eye on the clock and make sure they answer the required number of questions, even if they are reduced to answering the last question in note form. They should use the answer book for rough working as well as for answers, and draw a diagonal line through anything they do not want the examiners to read.

And finally, they should not panic, but breathe slowly and deeply: they need the oxygen to burn up the excess adrenaline they will be generating. They should start jotting down headings and sub-headings and unlocking all that stuff in their heads. Once they get engrossed in what they are doing, they will forget to panic.

Peter Levin
Consultant in teaching methods
London School of Economics.

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