The academic year goes so fast - before you know it, there are just a few weeks until final exams. We all know that learning the content of the syllabus is important, but what about learning how to function under pressure?
I've helped many students prepare for their tests, assessments and exams over the years; a couple of them have achieved 'Top in New Zealand' or 'Top in the World' titles, some have achieved A grades, some have achieved less than an A grade but have worked just as hard. They all have one thing in common - they've done their best, and I'm proud of them. I firmly believe that being the best you can be is the by-product of following some very humble principles. Being able to handle making mistakes, for example, is one of the keys to optimising achievement. Aiming for perfection is not.
I never tell my students to aim for 100% in their exams, yet a couple of them have achieved this because they were simply working hard, they had learned to be resilient and recover from their mistakes without panicking, and were well-trained for a pressured environment. Here's a reminder of the ways we can develop a great exam technique:
1. Practice hand writing with time constraints
When there are only two or three months until exams (in a full-year course), start setting homework or in-lesson tasks that have time limits. You may not want to make these limits as strict as an exam just yet, but writing an essay in an hour maximum, for example, will take you in the right direction. Using time constraints will alert you to any red flags early on - for example, some students find that they struggle with perfectionism. The problem is easily disguised if they are allowed to spend as much time as they want on assignments because they can spend hours editing and reworking. When time limits are set, they may find that they become easily frustrated or even tearful in attempting to complete the task. They might even be paralysed with indecision and not be able to finish. These problems are not insurmountable but it's great if they're identified sooner rather than later.
2. Work on any mechanical problems that may arise
In practicing hand-written pieces under time constraints, mechanical problems will become obvious. It can be beneficial to type out written tasks at the beginning of the year; this gives students a chance to order and re-order their ideas, edit, and work to a high standard. With practice, those neural pathways will be more established and they will be able to do more thinking 'on the go' while hand writing. Hand writing will highlight spelling, punctuation or grammar problems that need to be worked on. Having quality content is more important than mechanical accuracy in exams generally, but if there are intrusive mechanical errors, it can affect the mark substantially. Construct spelling lists of the words that are incorrect; learn these, and find resources to work on apostrophe usage, comma usage, etc, if these are weak areas. Limit 'crossing out' if possible (it becomes like visual static to examiners and can affect students' grades as they waste time crossing out phrases and thinking of how to reword them). Students may need practice with minimising crossing out by being more accepting of sentences that are adequate, even if they're not excellent. When crossing out is totally unavoidable, use one single line to cross out, not a mess of scribbles.
3. Plan time allocation for the exam
As soon as possible, get hold of previous exams (Cambridge has some online at www.cie.org.uk). It's important to work out how many minutes students will have for each section of the exam. Set time limits in accordance with the exam. Look at the overall time given to complete the exam, then look at the various sections/questions and the weighting of each question (e.g. some questions are only worth 10 marks while others might be worth more) to determine your time allocation. If an exam has two main questions and is a two-hour exam, and each question is worth equal marks, the student will have an hour to finish each question. Practice some past questions individually under the time constraints that you've worked out.
4. Do mock exams
It's essential to set aside time for sitting mock exams (practice exams). Some who are registered with schools will automatically have to sit these exams as part of school process. Those who are home educated and not sitting mock exams at a school will need to find a previous exam, set aside a quiet room with time to complete the whole exam in one sitting (as per the instructions on the exam or syllabus info). Keep strictly to the time limits of the exam, even if the student is alarmed or upset at not completing the exam. Some students will find they run out of time because they went overtime on a particular question, or froze with fear. Others may find themselves in adrenaline mode where they will rush, finish too early, and produce low quality work. A few may even be overly confident in their abilities and not realise that they have a lot to work on until their work is graded/marked. It's only when students have completed a whole mock exam will they realise where their strengths and weaknesses lie.
5. Be prepared to make mistakes and develop strategies to recover from these
It's common to become frustrated or upset when problems become obvious, but it's important to emphasise that every single student can improve their exam technique, and an imperfect performance doesn't reflect lack of intelligence or potential. Having a meltdown or 'brainfreeze' is not the end of the world; when coaching a student, downplay problems if he or she is lacking confidence. Have a calm, specific discussion with them about what they did well - even if it is as simple as not giving up, or getting a few words on the page when they were feeling paralysed. Create strategies to overcome weaknesses that emerge - for example, if a student is prone to not completing an exam, get them to practice smaller supervised writing exercises, figuring out whether they're stalling at the planning or writing stage, asking them what they're thinking when they stall (they might have an idea but be questioning it) until they can write what they need in the time allocated. If they struggle with brainfreeze (a blank mind), make a silly acronym that they can write down as soon as they get in the exam which will help them remember the key points they need. There are many strategies that can help; just use some creativity and persist with practice even when there might be some resistance due to a lack of confidence.
As a tutor, teacher, or student, we need to speak positively even when we see a perceived 'failure'; stay calm and realise that we're all human, we all have good days and bad days, we all make mistakes, and the true mark of success is being able to get up again and work hard after a setback.
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Alicia Leitch has been a tutor for over ten years, mainly in the subject of English. She has worked extensively with both home educated and school educated students. Alicia is also interested in Art and has her own creative pursuits in writing and painting. She loves encouraging people to reach their creative and expressive potential.