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Why can't I think during exams?

  1. Oct 8, 2015 #1
    I'm just finishing first round of midterms now, and I have a huge problem. I just can't think straight while I write my exams. I can do my problem sets (which are much harder than exam questions) easily and quickly and I know how I get the answers. But for some reason as soon as I sit down to write the exam it seems like a totally different world. What can I do to help this? Anyone else feel this way?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 8, 2015 #2
    Are you overly nervous? Are you getting enough sleep? Do your professors offer to let students see the old exams? I believe that it helps people to calm down if they know what kind of structure the tests have and what kind of questions they ask beforehand. If that's the case for you, then you'll probably do better on your second round of exams.

    I actually experienced this for the first time in three years of college on Wednesday, so I can attest to the fact that it does happen and it does happen even if you're comfortable with the material. I was in the test and I could actively feel my brain unable to think through some of the information. I think it was nervousness (and lack of sleep).
  4. Oct 9, 2015 #3

    Andy Resnick

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    My Introductory course sequence students experience this a lot. I generally give them the same 2 comments:

    1) Learning how to deal with stressful situations is an important life skill. Hoping this won't happen on the next exam is a poor strategy.
    2) You have plenty of time to complete the exam. When you start to panic/lose the ability to think, simply put your pencil down and take 30 seconds-1 minute (you may watch the wall clock if you like) to calm down and get re-centered.

    It helps for some people... at least, I see some students looking at the clock on later exams, and their test scores tend to increase.
  5. Oct 9, 2015 #4


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    Another trick that can help with the problem of brain lock-up is to go through a practice exam.

    Try to simulate the conditions of the exam as best you can - even to the point of going to the classroom where you will write it if that's a possibility. Prepare a set of practice questions. If an exam from a previous year is available use that. If not there is a lot of value in the exercise of surveying the material you've covered and trying to predict what the questions will be. Then sit down and practice. Use the same time constraints. Use some creative visualisation to imagin yourself surrounded by a bunch of other students.

    Doing this, when you go into the real exam it won't be the first time you've been there. You'll be better able to focus on the questions.

    It might also help to review some test-taking strategies. Some of these seem rather obvious on reflection, but it can really pay off to attack an exam strategically.
    1. In the lead-up to the exam (and really always) make sure you take care of yourself. Get adequate sleep and exercise. Eat well. Get quality down-time. Students often come into exams exhausted, or lethargic and this is a perfect recipe for panic to set in.
    2. Read through the entire exam before you put pen to paper. You'll recognize some questions you know, and maybe a few that you don't, but by seeing those ones you're not so sure of, subconsciouly you'll start to think about them early on and this will give your mind more time to wrestle with them.
    3. Time alottment. Make sure that you're watching the clock and alotting time in proportion to the marking scheme. There's no point in writing an essay to answer a question that's only worth 1% of the exam.
    4. Leave the multiple choice for last.
    5. Answer every question (unless there's a negative weighting for wrong answers).
    6. Approch the problems systematically... identify the key information, draw out a diagram if you have to, write out the relevant formula and map out the steps you need to get to a solution. Then execute. Follow up with a check - did you do the basic algebra correctly? Does the answer make intuitive sense? Do the units work out?
    Finally, sometimes it's just a case of putting more time into studying in my experience.
  6. Oct 12, 2015 #5
    Thanks for the tips guys! I do get quite nervous even when I'm confident about the material, so I'll have to work on that. I'll definitely keep all this advice in mind for the next round of exams, Thanks!
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