Exam Voodoo

Ken writes:

I have my final exam for the semester today, so naturally I will be wearing my favourite t-shirt. I would never cheat in an examination but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to put myself in the best possible position to do well. It is very important to have the right mental attitude going into an exam.
(image borrowed from http://2fm.rte.ie/blogs/countdown/2012/05/rte-2xm-presents-exam-series-countdown-to-606.html)

I cannot cheat. It’s not that I think I would really be cheating myself if I failed to learn the material. It’s that it would be wrong. And I mustn’t, mustn’t do it. I’m not even sure I think it would be so very morally terrible in the whole scheme of things. I just know I would rather fail than cheat. That, people, is upbringing. I’m not a total goody-two-shoes about it. I’m not adverse to being systematically ambiguous about something if I cannot remember the details precisely in the hope that the examiner will give me the benefit of the doubt. For instance, I could use a ‘/’ between to terms like ‘protein/polyphenols’, which in reality are quite different things and which sometimes occur in combination, if I’m not completely sure whether they’re appearing together or separately at a certain stage in the process. This is just an example.

The no cheating dictum just sets the ground rules for exams, but there’s more to preparation than study (although that is obviously the most important form of preparation). What I’m interested in is exam voodoo. Techniques to put you into the sort of mental space where everything just flows. Where you see the question list and know exactly which ones to answer. Where you know immediately how to compose your answer and structure it to best effect. Where the words just tumble out at just the right speed for your hand to write them down. Where you somehow manage to completely exhaust everything you know about a subject in your answer to that particular question.

I used to be very good at exams. I had just the right balance of nervousness and confidence, so that I had energy from the nerves but purpose and direction from the confidence. That would have been as an undergraduate. More recently, at job interviews which are kinda like exams, I haven’t managed to find that sweet spot between nerves and confidence. It’s really been confidence that has been wanting. I manage to stay calm by completely swamping my nerves and lowering my heart rate but that leaves me slow and dull. I cannot do that it the exam or I’ll not write enough and won’t represent my studying to the best extent. I’ve had two exams so far in this exam diet and while they’ve been better than job interviews, I haven’t found that sweet spot yet. In the first exam, in particular, I had done ridiculous amounts of study but the emphasis of the questions meant I couldn’t reveal as much as I knew to the examiner. Hopefully I will get marks for being on topic.

Back to exam voodoo. With emphasis on finding that balance between nerves and confidence, I think preparing to do well in an exam might involve such things as:-

Wearing special clothes.

Using special pens, rulers, a watch etc.

Promising yourself something rewarding after it is all over.

Telling yourself that the examiners like you and want you to shine; that they’re looking for excuses to give you marks and you just have to make it easy for them.

Listening to a power song before the exam.

If you have a good track record, taking confidence from the fact that past success is a good predictor of future success. If you don’t have a good track record, think of a reason why this time it is different.

Think of something you’ve done that you are proud of and compare it to writing an exam and find points of similarity.

So that’s Ken’s official exam voodoo guide. I’m going to go back to studying now, because I do think it’s easier to write well on a topic if you have as many facts about it as possible at your disposal.


8 thoughts on “Exam Voodoo

  1. ken in edinburgh

    Just to add… for my last exam, I tried to energise myself on the way to the exam by whooping and shouting ‘you know it!’. Under normal circumstances this would be embarrassing, but I think it did help.

  2. mairij

    Ken, I love your description of what its like to be on an exam high. It’s a bit like the joy of being able to skate without holding on to the board at the edge of the rink.

    I like your exam voodoo guide. As you say, the mental preparation is fundamental. But also remember that you’re father was a Quiz Kid and the first boy to go to University from Kelston Boys High; and your mother was nominated for a Woodrow Wilson scholarship (U of Manitoba – my Anthropology teacher). The equivalent of an exam for me when I was your age was probably having to teach militant anti-white, anti-women, anti-colonialist blacks 1st year social anthropology at University of Botswana. Just surviving the semester was a great achievement.

    Best of luck. I hope the brain cells fire like lightning.

  3. kenanddot

    The exam went well. Talking about things with people afterward, I realised there were things I could have put in my answers to improve them, but I am reasonably happy with what I managed to get down. I feel I represented myself well, and that’s what I wanted to do.

  4. Murray

    Some technical glitches in Mairi’s claims on my behalf but true in spirit. I really feel Ken’s new vocational direction is starting to convince me.

  5. I may have shared this with you previously, but can’t resist the urge to recount my favourite piece of pre-examination advice, as given to my sixteen year old self by my English teacher, just before the start of the unseen poetry paper for GCSE English:

    “Go in there and shove it right back up ’em.”

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