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Testing Exam nerves!

  1. Feb 8, 2012 #1
    Today I totally bombed my physics (Mock college entrance) exam. I mis read questions, pressed the wrong button on the calculator etc..

    This has always happened to me. Whenever I do an exam I both figuratively and literally crumble to pieces. (dry skin)

    Does anyone have any tips for avoiding this. It really hurts my performance. It only really happens in big Physics and Math exams not so much small mini-tests.

  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 8, 2012 #2
    Did you feel like you were rushing through the exam? Try to slow down when reading the questions and prepare yourself with sample questions the night before. In my math classes it seems like I'm the only one who is not anxious or nervous at all on the day of mid-terms/finals, try to relax yourself when you sit down to actually take the test.

    The tests in college are going to be much harder and cover more material. It's a good thing it was a mock exam because now you know what it's going to be like when you take the real one.

    On another note, do you have trouble focusing when reading the *longer* questions? If so, this could either be a disorder (ADD, ADHD, etc.) or just rushing yourself when you're taking the test. When you come to a question that you're totally stumped on, then just move on. I used to spend too much time on one question that I didn't know the answer to, but I would move on and the answer would come to me eventually (usually 3 minutes before the class ends :rofl:)
  4. Feb 8, 2012 #3


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    Exam stress plagued me most of my academic career until I finally got on top of it. Top tips that I use that have worked for me (I hope they work for others too):
    • Slow down, take deep breaths and do whatever you need to do to calm yourself (this applies for revision, pre-exam and during)
    • When revising find the things you enjoy the most. If revision is stressing you out then mix it up a bit, integrate learning some things you find interesting with the stuff you don't (even if the interesting stuff wont be in the exam)
    • If misreading a question is a problem then take a couple of minutes to write out the question itself before you start to answer it. Look at it and make notes as to what it means, doodle and annotate it. Write a little bullet point plan and double check it
    • Try to change your attitude towards exams into a casual thing. For instance: instead of sitting at a desk in silence alone for a mock test get a good friend, have a sit down somewhere comforting and get them to ask you the questions as though they were interested. It sounds weird but this helped me associate casually chatting with friends about what I study with answering exams
    • Plan your revision and plan it well. Make time tables weeks in advance, plan out which areas you think are going to be hard and which you are going to find easy
    • If you are having trouble remembering things then try memory tricks. Make up stories with characters and plots. This definitely sounds weird but for a biomaterial implant exam I had last year I made up a character called the weight lifting cyborg (I even doodled a picture). This helped me remember that one of the key concerns in designing a load bearing biomaterial implant is the ability to take mechanical strain, he also had a pet wolf which helped me remember Wolff's law about bone remodelling meaning that the implant shouldn't be stronger than bone or it will wear it away. It's silly but it works better than just trying to remember it dry!
    • Lastly use all the senses to revise. Write things out over and over and read them over and over (but in your own words! If you copy verbatim you run the risk of daydreaming and copying on auto). Talk to yourself, talk to imaginary people who are asking you questions. Try to visualise what you are learning as an object in front of you and use your hands to manipulate it
    Above all stay positive and remember that exam stress is not your fault. Many people struggle with it and you aren't alone. Best of luck :smile:
  5. Feb 8, 2012 #4
    "Did you feel like you were rushing through the exam?"
    Yes very much so. We had a limited amount of time. I think that this is my biggest issue.

    As far as I'm aware I don't suffer from any of those symptoms although my friend thinks I suffer from the psychological disorder called self handicap.

    Thanks for all those tips Ryan. Very helpful. I think the main issue is just reading it way too fast and rushing!!!

    I have another maths exam tomorrow, we'll see how it goes.
  6. Feb 8, 2012 #5


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    In addition to Ryan's excellent advice, you should know ahead of time how many questions will be on an exam, and how much time you'll have to complete the exam. If you have a tendency to rush through, make note of how much time you should need per question, and after 5 or 10 questions, check your time. If you're way ahead of schedule, take another deep breath and slow down to read more carefully. (I don't suggest this to someone whose nerves distract them and keep them from finishing on time.)

    Another option is to answer questions out of order. Skim through and start with the ones you know you can answer easily, then get the ones you're pretty sure you know how to do, but aren't quick answers. Then go back and take your time on the ones that you need to work hard on, knowing you have at least gotten a chunk of easier ones done. When I give paper exams, I tend to order questions by difficulty so there are a few nerve-calming questions on the first page and the difficulty increases. But, computerized and standardized exams often randomize question order, and some faculty never think about the order of questions. So, with those, you could wind up with the hardest question on the first page, which is panic-inducing for someone with even mild exam anxiety. If you know that going in, you won't panic as much if prepared to look for the easy ones first.

    People prone toward exam anxiety also should avoid studying at the last minute or pulling all-nighters before an exam. Sleep helps us handle stress better. Keeping up with studying all along is a good habit for everyone, and essential for someone who feels more and more stress as exams get closer.

    Try doing your homework as if it were an exam. Review the lecture material before starting the homework, and try to do as much as you can from memory without looking things up. Then, when it's time for the test, just think of it as a long homework set.

    Some students get worked up listening to other students before an exam. There's a lot of nervous chatter before exams. I suggest that my students who get nervous about exams should enter the exam room as late as possible and do something somewhat active right before the exam to keep distracted from getting nervous.
  7. Feb 8, 2012 #6
    Also, it's very important to know that you are not alone. Your future college will probably have some kind of help for people with exam nerves. For example, they might offer a course which teach you how to stay calm. It's worth checking out once you are in college.
  8. Feb 8, 2012 #7
    The most effective solution would be to strike the roots of this problem : the importance you give on your performance on these tests is too high. Stop caring about tests performance and your academic results. It's not easy, but it can be done with enough effort. Learn because you are interested and you enjoy learning, not because you care about the test results.
  9. Feb 8, 2012 #8
    So he should just stop caring about his academic results?? Any suggestions on how he can actually do that??
  10. Feb 8, 2012 #9
    It seems to me that people's rate of thought is not talked about very much. I'm pretty sure that there are some, probably even lots of, people that simply think faster than I do. However, I argue that quick thinking does not mean better thinking.

    Virtually all physics tests that I've taken always gave more than enough time to complete every single problem. No matter what, I always stayed until the end of an exam, whether checking work, thinking if I could approach a problem in a different way, reasoning an answer's meaning. Lots of students would turn in their exam and leave before time was over. However, when all was said and done, I typically had one of the highest grades in the class. Maybe these kids thought faster than I did, but my thoughts were more accurate. However, I really don't function well under time pressure and the very same kids will destroy me if time is an issue. The tables were turned when it came time for the GRE...

    I'd say the take home message of my story is to not feel too bad about doing poorly on a test with time pressure, that just may not be your strong suit -- certainly isn't mine.
  11. Feb 8, 2012 #10
    By monitoring your own thoughts. You sense thoughts that are related with caring about academic results - you try to consciously inhibit them. This should be done both with good and bad results.

    Gradually, the importance you apply to them decreases. Stress, fear becomes weaker, and your results actually even get better, unless, of course, this was the reason why you were studying at all, which it shouldn't.
  12. Feb 8, 2012 #11
    Don't be that guy!

    Either you know it or you don't. If you have studied and comprehended the material then you know it.

    Here is something that helps me. First always read the directions of the test. Go to the first question and if you know it, answer it. If you have no clue, go on to question two. Also if you answer a question but you don't feel good about the answer, put some some kind of mark by the number. That way if you have extra time you can come back to double check your work.

    Always show your work in a need an organized manner.

    Learn to solve problems algebraically then substitute numbers if required.

    Have a bottle of water to sip on during the test.
    Last edited: Feb 8, 2012
  13. Feb 8, 2012 #12
    Yeah, try to do that while having a panic attack of anxiety attack. It's easier said than done.
  14. Feb 8, 2012 #13
    How well prepared were you for the exam? Did you know the material inside and out?

    I'm *not* saying this is parallel to your situation but something I used to regard as exam nerves was, at the crux of it, a lack of proper preparation. I studied, sure, but I didn't sufficiently prepare enough to yield the results I wanted. Therefore as I began to slip and sense the areas I wasn't so well versed in come up on exams I used to just get dejected and my entire performance would go downhill. Having time pressures only compounded this problem.
    Last edited: Feb 8, 2012
  15. Feb 9, 2012 #14
    I didn't say it was easy. At the neurobiological level, panic attacks, stress and fear are induced by various neural networks. You have to trace them down, and consciously change them. This requires effort, time and consistency. So yes, it's not easy.
  16. Feb 9, 2012 #15
    This is actually a very good method to remember important items and definitions.

    I used to have a very hard time with test anxiety and stress back in high school and my first college attempt. I still did well in high school, but not so well in college. The anxiety I felt would get to the point where I would forget even the things I had known inside and out. Needless to say, I failed out of college the first time with a 1.7 GPA (though certainly a lot of that had to do with my work ethic and emotional struggles -- I wasn't ready for college). Now I am back in school and have a drastically higher GPA.

    I find myself simply relaxed for most tests. I study small sections of every class every day, and I don't bother "cramming" at the last second. I think this is the key for me (though you may surely be different!) -- the more I cram the night before a test, the more I tell my brain that it hasn't learned anything at all, that all the knowledge I have gained over the last few weeks/months is insufficient. I'm assuming this is where the anxiety came from. Ten years from my last college experience and I'm just a different person today. I love to learn and I feel my grades will simply reflect the efforts I took to learn the material and the enjoyment I received from it in the process. Thinking this way certainly helps with test anxiety, and I'm much better with it than I was in the past. Still not perfect, but better.

    Just enjoy what you're learning and let tests be tests. Tests don't define you. I don't know what else to say but to just "let it be".

    Ehh...that was long-winded. Oh well, at least you got some good advice from the other members!
  17. Feb 10, 2012 #16

    Not that this actually will help your exam grade, but this usually makes people feel better: You are not alone.

    I thought I bombed my modern physics final last semester(turns out I didn't). I got into the test, felt fine and all, then just froze up and couldn't think right at all. Still not sure what made this happen, but needless to say I panicked and things got worse.

    Really the thing you must do is just try to stay calm. Usually a time limit can freak people out(as it did with me today in my thermal physics exam). If you get to a problem that you don't know how to start almost immediately, skip it. If you get stuck on it you will start to worry and then be looking up at the clock and worry more. Skip problems you don't know how to do. Once you get to problems you CAN solve, your confidence will build, your nerves will go down, and you can go back with confidence try the problems you skipped. When you panic, your head isn't clear and you screw up.

    Unfortunately for some of us(like me), learning how to take tests effectively is learned the hard way. One thing I suggest you do is time yourself to solve 3-4 random problems from a book(or better yet an old test). This will get you used to the test environment of being calm and managing time effectively.
  18. Feb 10, 2012 #17


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    @OP: prepare and relax. You can't ace a test if you are so stressed-out that you seize up. If you cram before a test and get to the exam tired and worried, you will NOT do well.
  19. Feb 11, 2012 #18
    Same here. Plus I barely study the day of the exam, or else I become more nervous for some reason.
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