Agony aunt

May 12, 2000

The exam season is creeping up and I can see the strain starting to tell on my tutor group. How can I soothe their pre-exam nerves?.


James Gotaas. Senior lecturer in physics. University of Central Lancashire.

You have provided advice on exam preparation and tried to make them feel that they will succeed, but still you feel tension mounting. What to do?

Be reassuring. Nerves are to be expected, even welcomed in small measure - evolution's preparation for the fight. Only a rare individual can face an examination without some stomach flutters. Nerves can actually aid them, but panic cannot.

Be rational. Point out that their work will pay off. Thousands have faced these trials and survived. The odds of success are in their favour. Unfortunately, the truth is that the power of reason often works best with those not in dire need of it. What if logic still leaves them glancing nervously around the room?

Be inspirational. Quote Kipling's If with fervour - instil in them the belief that they will be the ones who keep their heads.

Be therapeutic. Help them practice "desensitisation": imagining themselves in the exam room, facing the paper, reading the questions, feeling satisfaction as their words flow.

For students who may be truly at risk, consider a gentle nudge toward a professional counsellor, before stress overwhelms them. And for the rest? Whisper the final incantation: "There's always reassessment."

Laura F. Spira. Accounting unit head and senior research fellowOxford Brookes University Business School.


Two conundrums: why don't students believe that lecturers really want them to pass exams? And why is it that the students who have missed classes and deadlines are mostly blessed with supreme and often misplaced confidence in their exam success, while those who have worked and are well prepared are the ones who fret?

They will have heard the usual advice many times but it sometimes helps them to gain a sense of perspective by considering the worst possible scenario and how they might deal with it practically: is a resit available and, if so, when? I have also found that gloom can be momentarily dispelled by an account of my own past exam failures and the demonstration that such setbacks have not prevented me from developing into a well-balanced member of society. However, this strategy carries the inherent risk of being interpreted by students as another reason to panic:

"If I fail, I may end up like her."


Martin Greenhow. Senior tutor Department of Mathematical Science. Brunel University.

All students get stressed by exams, but you can help by channelling this into an important part of the learning process. Get your students to draw up a revision plan and stick to it! Mark exams in red, time for leisure etc in black, job commitments in green, and then divide the rest of the time (about six hours per day) between their modules and write them in hourly blocks in blue. Tell them to have a good look at the syllabi and attempt last year's paper. Cover all the main areas. This may seem overwhelming but students can break the module down into topics. Before they know it, they will have six topics under their belts.

Ask lecturers when they are available for last-minute questions and what material, eg formula sheets, will be provided in the exam.

Revision involves attempting questions, writing out definitions and organisation - not just passively reading notes.

More advice at: ssguide/sshome.htm

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