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Can't Eat Can't Sleep - it must be exam time.

A moment of marking this week reminded me of what happens when pressure gets too much and the brain begins to shut down. Too much of the same thing; too much pressure; too much else going on in head and too much stress all cause the drop off in performance experienced in the mock exams I'd marked this week.
Thanks to @learningspy for this diagram

This little graph provided me with the answers to seeming absence of understanding of all the points covered again in revision. Now I know the students can perform at a higher level and there is no reason that their skills have dropped.

It has reached that time of drilling, practising, revising and panicking as the exam season quickly approaches. The stress levels rise and depending on how well the exam skills are embedded students hit Inertia (stress is so high for a task that is basic so why bother) or Anxiety (stress and challenge is high so doubt and panic sets in so you shut down).

When we hit these two areas the brain begins to protest and effective learning / work cannot take place.

The students who can reduce their stress levels while tackling challenging material have got 'the flow' and will produce their most effective work.

This is what we as teachers try to develop to ensure effective learning takes place in our classroom.

Your success in your exams is about getting 'the flow' under those exam conditions where the challenge is always high but we can manage the stress levels we feel.

How can you control your stress levels up to and during the exam?

Let's think of the causes of the stress you feel breaking it down into two parts: up to the exam and during the exam.

Up To The Exam

Causes of stress:

  1. Not knowing how to revise.
  2. 10 or 11 Teachers telling you you need to do more.
  3. Parents telling you need to do more.
  4. Everyone telling you that this affects the rest of your life.
  5. Having too many subjects to fit in.
  6. Friends pressuring you to go out etc.
Not knowing how to revise. 

Revision is a science: it is to do with developing skills, retaining and using knowledge that focuses around how the brain works. Cognitive Science (scroll to the bottom here if you want a more detailed explanation and links http://pragmaticreform.wordpress.com/) states that you have three types of memory re-call. Working  Memory, Long-Term Memory and Knowledge Schema.

Think of your brain like your bedroom and clothing choices - You have limited space so you can't have every piece of clothing you own out all the time. This is like your working memory - it only has a limited capability and can become easily clogged up (you know when you can't remember the name of someone and it comes to you ten minutes later).

You have long term memory  - this is like your wardrobe - a place where everything is stored neatly. You go to it and take out what you need depending for the occasion.

Knowledge Schema is not too relevant at this time of the year as it states the more knowledge you have of something the easier it is to learn new things about that subject. It is easier to try to read words in French rather than Arabic because you have a working knowledge of the Alphabet and how how words and letters sound. Take this on board next year though; reading something about each of your subjects no matter if it is relevant to the topic you are currently studying or not will help you learn new things more quickly.

Revision is like tidying your room so that you know where every piece of clothing is when you need it. 

In any subject it is the same. You need to ensure that you transfer materials from your working memory to your long term memory so you can recall them in the exam hall.

Here are some interesting posts:



Your revision should focus on spacing your revision at the early stages and cramming as you get closer to the exam. Too much cramming from the beginning of your revision will overload your working memory from the start. No spacing and only cramming will mean that the information is not stored if you take a break or miss a day's revision. So start with weekly revision of a subject starting with basic ideas and testing those the next week before looking at more complicated ideas. In History this could work:

Monday Week 1: Remember Key Dates and Figures of the Crusades

Monday Week 2: Test the previous week's information. If secure move onto remembering the strengths and weaknesses of the key figures.

Monday Week 3: Test the previous two week's information. If secure Analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the key figures.

Etc, Etc

In run up to the exam: Each day for 3-5 days before the exam (depending on your exam timetable) Test yourself and recalling any of the key information.

Each subject relies on basic skills which are built upon to become more complex processes.

In English these are: Information Retrieval, Inference, Analysis, Evaluation in reading.
Basic sentence and word use becoming more creative and sophisticated with more complex uses of vocabulary, punctuation, devices, paragraphs and sentences structure in writing.

10 or 11 Teachers telling you you need to do more / Parents telling you need to do more / Having too many subjects to fit in.

The above cause an overload in Working Memory and you then don't know what you should be doing so you don't do anything. The paralysis of Anxiety.

A good revision timetable is key to this and that is when we can deal with Friends pressuring you to go out etc. as well. Get together with your friends - agree a time and a place and you can also put some time into the timetable yourself so you can go out. Use the time as a reward so once some revision is done then you can go out. If you've got something to look forward to, you'll work harder.

Everyone telling you that this affects the rest of your life.

Your exams are important but they are not the be all and end all of your life. You are lucky that you are in country where you have options. There are re-takes, top up courses, foundation entry degrees and online learning courses that will help you achieve your goals if you are determined enough. Here is a quotation from J.K. Rowling (thanks to @huntingenglish for pointing me in that direction full posting on failing with confidence here:http://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2013/04/27/failing-with-confidence/)

'Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.'

In education you fail more often than you don't. Learning to not make the same mistake twice is at the core of the learning process so embrace failing because it tells you how to get better. You only fail when you don't learn from a mistake you've made.

During The Exam

Well this takes a little bit of practice before the exam as well but there are two key things you need to be able to control.

1) Recognise when your anxiety is impairing your ability to function at the top level.
2) Knowing what to do about it.

I've stood outside English Exam Halls for 7 years now and I hear the same things over and over again:

'I'm going to Fail' 'Sir, I don't know what to do for question x' 'Don't make me do this' 'I can't do this'

These are all cries out for the same thing. They translate as:

'I need a reassuring hug'.

This is fine! It is OK to need reassurance. You are not going to fail, you do know what to do for the question - you've had hours of lessons on it, you can do this!

What these phrases do is increase the doubt in your mind. I'd rather you said:

'I need a reassuring hug' or 'Sir I can do this can't I?'.

Give your mate a hug, tell them they can do it but don't tell them 'it's all right I'm going to fail too'. The language you use before the exam directly influences your stress levels.

Your going to feel anxious throughout the revision period. This (just like revision) gives you the chance to practise managing your anxiety for the exam.

You'll no doubt be reading your notes and you can't understand something you've written and you know it is key: the anxious reaction to this is to chuck your book across the room - scream I can't do it and then sulk.

The stress reducing reaction to this is: to put your book down, take five minutes doing something else and then come back to the subject but do something you know you can do. Spend your time doing that then go back to the page that was bothering you. You now have a better frame of mind to tackle that page. If it still bothers you then you mark it out to show to your teacher and then you move on to something different.

The myth of revision is that you should spend all of your time doing it. You need your childish and distracting breaks to clear your working memory. It needs time to tidy itself and allow you to fill it with the knowledge you need. 30 minutes watching fish can be as valuable as the 30 minutes you spend revising and stressing yourself out.

Write down what you are good at in the subject you are revising, commit this to your long term memory. We all have something we are good at in every subject even if our confidence is low.

I am not confident to touch a drill to build or put something up but I would happily sketch out a diagram showing how to do it.

This is key to managing your stress in the exam.

If that doubt comes into your mind telling you you don't know what to do for a question and you should just leave it and you want to throw the exam paper across the room. Think of the reason you are good at in the subject. Clear your working memory and focus only on that thing you are good at. Look back to the question - focus on each word of it. Write something.

There are other ways at doing this a lucky charm, favourite bracelet etc but give your working memory a chance to clear because ploughing through will result in impaired performance within the work you do carry out.

Anxiety clogs up your working memory so give yourself a chance to clear it.

If you find these problems in the revision period:

1) Lack of Sleep
2) Mood Swings
3) Can't Eat
4) The inability to do the simplest of tasks

Your stress levels are high because of the challenges you are experiencing. The only way you will get rid of these problems is lowering the stress.

So back to the beginning. I looked at the work I'd marked for my class and looked at the zombies that appeared in my classroom. Students who had loved learning ( and English) now counting the seconds until they leave school. It is a horrible time that I wouldn't like to repeat but:

Don't get caught in the trap of Apathy, Inertia and Anxiety manage your stress and challenge and Go with the Flow.

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