The ‘mental game’ of exams.

I did a revision session for one of my undergrad courses today, and I like to talk a little in these about exam technique, as it’s a topic that isn’t formally taught and often under-appreciated by undergrad students as an important element of performance.

I teach a 2nd year course, and exams in 2nd year are hard in an interesting way. The exam style for 2nd, 3rd & 4th year is similar but often quite different to 1st year. The answer path is often not as straightforward and technique can have more bearing on your outcomes than it does in 1st year exams. The problem is that’s not obvious as a 2nd year, many students don’t realise it until it’s too late, e.g., they get to 4th year. Certainly, in higher year undergrad exams, simply studying the notes and doing the quiz problems isn’t the complete package.

I talked in the revision session about making sure your background maths skills are tight, learning to both read the question and read ‘into’ the question what the examiner is looking for, how to get part marks well, etc. I might write a separate post on those aspects another time.

In this post, I want to focus on what happens outside the normal thinking about exams a bit, what I like to call the ‘mental game’ of exams. Two points on this:

1. Don’t study right up until the exam: As an undergrad, I wouldn’t study the day before the exam or on the day of the exam.

If you’re a racer (triathlon, marathon, cycling, whatever) one thing you learn is that you don’t train the night before a race. If you do, your performance sucks. Your body is still recovering, it can’t give you full performance. Instead, you ramp your training down and don’t train at all the few days before the race. It gives your body time to replenish supplies, repair muscles, refresh and reset your mind. You wake up on race day firing on all cylinders, mentally and physically.

Exams are like races in many ways. They’re the bit at the end of the training where it really counts. And you want to be on your peak performance for it (more on that in Point 2). If you study right up to the exam, your mind is tired. And it’s still trying to digest all this stuff you’ve been jamming in there for days on end right when you want it to shift focus to calmly working through the problems. If you study like crazy until the last minute, you inevitably get mental blanks and disordered thinking much like you get stitches and breathless patches if you train right up to a race.

I would do other things within a day or so of the exam. It might be some light study on another exam further out if I had a crowded exam timetable but more often I’d just read a book or watch tv or go for a walk or go out with friends. Anything to get my mind off the exam and studying and the topic of the course.

An interesting thing happens when you do this. Occasionally your brain throws messages at you. For example, you’re watching GoT and Tyrion is in the middle of his latest scheme and suddenly ‘hey, I don’t get this thing about the inertia tensor, why was one of the terms on the diagonal zero for that plate thing? Does that mean something?’ If I was in the middle of something, I’d just note the question and sort it out later. If I wasn’t, I’d go away and find the answer. Don’t use this as an excuse to get back into intense study (e.g., ‘oh man, I’m not ready, I have to study more’), just fix the disconnect your brain told you about and get back to relaxing until it happens again.

If I ever looked at my notes on the day of an exam, it was only to answer the questions by brain threw up. Nothing you put in your head on exam day is going stay. I would literally just let my brain say ‘I want you to check x for me please’, and I’d check x. And then I’d find something else to do until it hit me with something else to check.

Sometimes your brain also does the opposite, rather than asking it tells. It might throw some weird logical connection at you, and when you follow it, you realise you suddenly understand a connection in the subject better. Likewise, let yourself follow these ‘brain farts’ just to where they are resolved, don’t let them lull you back into intense study. Your brain doesn’t want more to chew on, it want’s time to chew on what it already has.

I would also do things like go on walks or do mundane things like wash the car (the more boring the better) to try and encourage this because it’s what you want to happen. It’s your brain processing what you studied earlier. But you need to stop with enough time before the exam to let this happen. If you study until the last minute, there’s just no chance.

One warning, if you go out with friends to relax the day before, keep it contained. There’s relaxing and going nuts. Doing an exam with a hangover is strongly not advised (trust me).

2. Prepare physically and mentally for the exam: Another aspect of ‘race management’ in sports is pre-race and post-race. And many of these ideas hold for exams too.

After 13 years teaching, I’ve seen my fair share of students unravel in an exam, it’s an unfortunate reality and no fun for anyone (and I came close to doing so myself once as a 1st year, so I do know the feeling). You chat to these students later, and you find out they crammed for 18 hours the day before, crashed at 2am, slept terribly, woke late, were in a mad rush to make the exam, couldn’t find parking… no wonder they fell apart. Some have been sleep deprived for days, binging on caffeine to extend their study hours. Their mind is screaming away with anxiety, they can’t focus… they’re completely paralyzed by the first question that requires a little stretch in mental effort, and it spirals downhill from there.

This is obviously no good, you simply cannot operate like this.

The important thing to realise is you can overcome this, much like any fear. But… it takes conscious effort and practice. You have to work at it. You mightn’t get it the first few times, and sometimes you have it cracked and there’s relapses, but with work you can get there.

At the very least, you can turn exams from terrifying and paralysing (distress) into just nervous energy (eustress), but this is good, that little buzz of adrenaline that comes from ‘it’s time for an exam’ or standing on the beach in a wetsuit waiting for the starter’s gun is the energy that you can learn to turn into a laser-like focus on the task.

Some tips you might want to think about:

  • Make sure you get a proper night’s sleep before the exam. This obviously is not going to happen if you are studying in the evening, your brain will just be buzzing. It’s another reason I wouldn’t study the day before the exam. Instead I would do what I needed to make sure I got a good solid night’s sleep. Being well rested has a massive effect on performance and boosts you much more than some last minute cramming.
  • Get up at a sensible time before the exam. You don’t want to have to rush and panic, that just makes you stressed and anxious, which sets your whole day up like that. Instead, kick off the day with something that puts you in a good mood. Find something funny to watch. Catch up with some friends you can talk some other stuff with. Play with the dog. Whatever it is that does it for you, put it in the start of exam day. If you set out first thing with a good day, then you are off to a really positive start.
  • Have a proper breakfast. If caffeine is your thing, have some and not too much.
  • Less relevant for online exams, but be there early. Again, this is anxiety management, you want to reduce stressors in the exam lead-up. For an online exam, make sure your space for the exam is ready well ahead of the time and in a set-up you like.
  • Leave some time to ‘get in the zone’ before the exam. Put everything after the exam out of your head; you can’t afford to think about that. As extreme skier Doug Coombs says in Warren Miller’s Journey: “If you’re scared, the world is shaking, you’re thinking about the future, thinking about the consequences… that’s not right, that’s no good.” You’re just not going to be able to function at your peak mentally on a crucial task if you’re preoccupied with something other than that task! Same deal with the swim leg in a triathlon, if you’re thinking about sharks or drowning in the sea, you’re obviously not going to swim well, your navigation is off, panic messes up your breathing, it’s no good. Learn to put bad talk out of your head. Often it’s a matter of just steering your thoughts away from it. Going back to the swimming example, when my brain screams ‘but what about those sharks, hey’ during a race and I feel that sort of pre-panic happen, I just start thinking about my stroke, is my hand entry good, is my breathing pace right, etc. I basically talk my brain back to calm by giving it something else to think about. Work out how to do the same in exams, even if it’s something as dumb as thinking about how cool your calculator is and taking a few slow breaths. On exam day, no amount of positive self-talk is too much. Trust your preparation. Back yourself. If music is your thing to get in the zone before an exam, do that. If talking to people about anything but the exam is, do that. Work out what makes you feel comfortable and get your mind off the anxieties of the exam.
  • Find an easy question to start on. If you get stuck, just pass and go to the next question. Like Point 1, sometimes your brain just needs to process the question for a while.
  • Mentally reward yourself for good answers in the exam (‘yeah, nice work’), especially early on. The positive self-talk before the exam should continue during it. Remind yourself that you don’t need to get every question 100% right to make it through. It’s easy to think you haven’t done enough when you probably have. Don’t be overly tough on yourself, encouraging yourself is better.
  • If you need to stop a minute or two, take a mental break and calm yourself down, just do it. That’s better than continuing on and fighting the panic. This is actually how I bailed myself out of the panic in my 1st year exam way back in the past. I stopped, took a few moments to just get some perspective (‘look, it’s just one exam, it’s not the end of the world, work out what you can offer against the question, grab all the part marks you can, and we’ll just hope that’s enough.’) and then pushed on. Don’t be afraid to do this. There’s no rule saying you have to be writing every second of the exam time.

And lastly… make yourself a time to ‘debrief’ after each exam. It’s one thing that never really comes up in science for some reason, but in sports it happens after every race/game and it’s common in the military after missions too, which often have an ‘exam-like’ stress profile and the same mental management games are required.

  • Try to do your review dispassionately. Look both at what you did well and what you could do better (note the language, not what was bad, not what was dreadful, what you can do better — see next point below). There *will* always be both sides so look for both sides. Take note of those lessons for next time, they are exactly how you get better at this. Remind yourself before your next exam what you wanted to do better last time.
  • Don’t be down on yourself. You did your best, you can’t change how it went, and beating yourself up about it certainly isn’t going to help anything. Focus on what you did well and what the lessons are, it will make you better at exams and it will make you happier too.
  • Accept that sometimes you have a bad day. We all have them. It’s not the end of the world. You’re still alive, you still have friends, you still have a place to live and food to eat. Retain your perspective. Many of your professors have failed exams before, failed courses before, had other things go wrong (I fell off a stage during a talk at a conference once, for example). Same in sports, even the best have come dead last in races, stopped in the swim leg freaking out about sharks, crashed a bike. You definitely aren’t the only one. All you can do is pick yourself up, dust yourself off, learn the lessons and fight on.
  • Irrespective of how you did, reward yourself. You survived! If you can take the rest of the day off, do it. Find something fun to do. Whatever you do, don’t just jump straight into study again.

Happy examing!


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