The Mental Game of Exam Preparation

When it comes to exams, many students feel considerable pressure. The challenges are obvious; most notably managing study workload as well as the mental and emotional strain which often accompanies exams.

There is no secret to success. Students must be willing to do the work. This includes a willingness to acquire and implement effective study habits as part of their preparation. However, an often overlooked aspect of exam preparation concerns the mental game, that is, the mental strategies that can be deployed to enhance success under the ‘pressure-cooker’ environment of exams.

Below, I outline four tips that students can use to ensure they’ve prepared mentally; handy tips that teachers can share in the lead up to exams.

See the opportunity – Viewing exams as an opportunity to showcase what is known, as opposed to a threat exposing what isn`t known is a key strategy students can use. Viewing exams in this way will often ‘free the mind’ to think more creatively and spontaneously – given conscious thought is not preoccupied with thoughts of failure! The reality is that most students have acquired a wealth of information throughout the semester; there’s typically more subject matter that they do know rather than don’t know. Most students just need a helpful reminder of this fact!

Lower the stakes – Yes, exams are important, however, it’s not the ‘end of the world’ if you don’t perform. Yet the irony is that they are often perceived as a real life ‘threat’ – producing the same emotional reaction as if encountering a snake or a bear! The common response is often disproportionate of the actually reality. Students can be forgiven for thinking that missing out on their ‘first preference’ will significantly hinder their life success. However, the reality is that there are many alternative avenues should they not achieve their dream ATAR score. Sighting examples of successful students (or even famous people) who have had successful careers after not achieving as well as they hoped in exams can be a great way to put things into perspective, and thus lower anxiety levels!

Diffuse and refocus anxiety – Experiencing a ‘healthy amount’ of stress in the lead up to exams is to be expected. Acknowledging this stress as ‘normal’ can help diffuse its momentum, preventing it from escalating. Furthermore, encouraging students to channel negative energy, using it as motivation to prepare, can be a great way to refocus anxiety. Given anxiety is essentially a preoccupation of the future, thorough preparation will generally allay most worries – it’s a great antidote to anxiety!

Develop a game plan – Developing a game plan to manage time during the exam is critical. Visualisation is a technique that can be of great benefit. In essence, visualisation prepares the brain for performance through mental rehearsal. It’s used to great benefit in a variety of high performance jobs, including with athletes, musicians, surgeons and law enforcement personnel. The key to useful visualisation is to not just focus on successful scenarios, but to rehearse dealing with undesirable situations. For example, developing a mental plan to successfully navigate a mental block or difficult question is a great way to safe-guard from being derailed in the event that this occurs during the exam.

So there it is, four tips to help students mentally prepare for exams… please share with your students!

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