17/05/2023 • 8 min read
How to help students perform better on exam day
A lot has changed in education recently, but one thing that has stayed the same is the critical importance of exams. Given their long-lasting impact on students’ opportunities, it’s only natural that taking exams can be a daunting experience. In this article, I will explore strategies that you as a subject teacher can use to help students perform to the best of their ability on exam day.
No surprises on exam day
One of the most important ways teachers can help their students is to ensure they have a complete understanding of how the exam will work. It’s vital that students know what to expect when it comes to details like exam structure, rubrics, wording, time limits, word limits, permitted materials… This is even more important for students who haven’t taken such high-stakes exams before. Let’s not forget that recent exam seasons were severely disrupted by the pandemic, so many students have missed out on valuable prior experience in the exam room.
It’s not enough just to tell your students what they need to do. In the heat of the moment they can easily forget or get confused. You need to reinforce clear routines. Make them bring in all the equipment they need (even if you’ll always have spares). They should check the battery on their calculators and have a spare pen. Be strict about this. The last thing you want is panic at the start of an exam because a student suddenly realises they have faulty or missing equipment. For them to tackle an exam paper calmly and efficiently, nothing should be unexpected. Ideally, the whole process should become second nature.
For more information on how to run exams smoothly, check your exam board’s website. IB educators should consult the IB’s programme resources and the IB Exchange.
Practice makes perfect
In the build-up, accurately simulating the exam is paramount. Apply the real timing and instructions. From lining up in the corridor beforehand to silently waiting for the teacher to collect the papers, your students should get used to the routines of exam day. That way, when it comes to exam day, hopefully they’ll feel a sense of “déjà vu” because they’ve been through it all before. This will allow them to focus on retrieving and applying their knowledge, thinking clearly and accessing their creativity.
You should also spend time clarifying command terms and mark schemes. Exams are artificial and require students to jump through hoops that aren’t always totally clear, especially for students who aren’t taking the exams in their first language. It’s vital that they fully understand any expectations that may be hidden, for example, behind the phrasing of instructions or the number of marks available. This also helps them to pace themselves and work efficiently. Students often overlook these aspects of exam preparation, but they can work on it using resources such as flash cards on common exam command terms.
Personalised, compassionate feedback
The way you phrase your feedback can make or break a student’s confidence – all the more so just before an exam. It is important to act as a coach, steering your students towards a growth mindset rather than self-pity. Personalise your feedback in line with your students’ cognitive appraisal styles.
In The Psychology of Stress and Coping, Richard Lazarus explains that an imbalance between the demands placed on an individual and the individual’s coping resources can cause stress and undermine their self-esteem. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push our students, but during exam time we should mindful of keeping their confidence up. They need to focus on the positives.
Research has shown that practising self-affirmation and actively countering negative thoughts has a positive impact on performance. Try turning your feedback into mantras. In some cultures and environments, criticism comes more naturally than praise and students struggle to adopt a positive approach. In these cases more scaffolding is needed, and this can be as simple as introducing a new ritual. For example, your students could think about one of their strengths and practise self-affirmation while the exam papers are being handed out.
To explore more strategies for developing your students’ stress management skills, take a look at my recent article on how to support your students through exam stress.
A healthy mind in a healthy body
During exam season, students and their families often think focusing on revision above all else will guarantee success. Research suggests the opposite: students who maintain a balanced lifestyle tend to perform better academically. It is important to remind students to get regular exercise, even during the peak of exam season. Short bursts of activity help to clear their minds, boost their energy levels and improve their mood.
Adequate sleep is crucial for academic success. Research shows that students’ memory and cognitive functioning improve if they sleep well. During exam season, students should try to apply the following recommendations:
- sleep at least 7 hours per night for at least a week before the exam
- stick to a regular sleep schedule
- sleep in a cool, dark, quiet environment
Reinforce the importance of sleep with your students. Try asking your class to answer the attendance register with the number of hours they slept the previous night, or to respond to the “On a scale of Cat, how are you feeling today?” meme every morning.
Taking short naps (no more than an hour!) can also be helpful, as this can improve alertness, memory, creativity, productivity and mood, as well as decreasing stress.
Diet is also an important factor of success. During revision, students often rely on junk food, caffeine and sugar to boost energy levels. According to nutritional therapist Daniel O’Shaughnessy, “while caffeine may make you more alert, individuals can build up a tolerance meaning this is short-lived”, and it “can also increase blood sugar and eventually lead to dips, causing lack of focus and energy.” Talk to your students about ideas for exam day meals, as various foods have been proven to boost concentration.
Warn students that they should never skip breakfast or lunch. Even if they feel nauseous (perhaps due to exam nerves) they should eat something simple and plain to settle the stomach. Eating protein-filled food up to two hours before the exam helps maintain consistent energy levels throughout the whole session.
Hydration is crucial too: a study conducted by Dr Caroline Edmonds found that even drinking really small amounts of water improves cognitive performance. Meanwhile, a high caffeine intake and regular consumption of energy drinks have both been linked to increased anxiety levels.
Coaching students to overcome challenges
When exams are looming, a lot of the psychological challenges students face can be put down to a lack of experience. In these moments, teachers need to act as life coaches, psychologists and knowledge facilitators. By providing the right guidance, feedback and support, teachers can help their students to develop a mindset that allows them to perform to their full potential on exam day. I wish you and your students the best of luck!
About the author
Ingrid Delange is a passionate and highly experienced IB educator, a pastoral and sustainability leader and an author for both Kognity and the IB. She is currently a founding member of a school in South China, where she is creating an ambitious pastoral framework to develop a cohesive spirit between the local and international sections of the school.