Happy exam week – just don’t draw any whales


Depending on the University you visit, some students (including my own) may experience the sheer joy of doing some exams these days. That includes law and ethics exams. Here’s a myth busted, and some tricks.

No, the real exam is not tougher than the test exammyth busted
For years I am listening to the same complaints after each exam: the real one was much tougher compared to the test exam. I will probably make myself very unpopular by stating that this is really nonsense most of the time. Unless you have a very clumsy teacher. When I look at my own courses, the test exam is mostly the real exam from last semester. Considering the fact that I am teaching some courses for over ten years, that would hypothetically mean that the exam in year one could be passed by a three year old without study preparation, while the exam got increasingly tougher throughout the years, and by now requires a student to earn a PhD-degree first before being able to pass.

It is more likely, if you like it or not, that during the test exam two variables played a significant role: the sense of stress and peer pressure. When you do a test exam, you feel quite relaxed compared to the situation in which you do a real one. That has an influence on your capacity to think straight. Next to that, when you are in a relaxed atmosphere discussing possible answers with your peers, you help each other out, and you feel encouraged by your colleagues in formulating the right answer. How different is the situation when you are all alone, in deep silence, concentrating on formulating an answer that is created by you, and you alone, while your academic career depends on it.

Some advice
However, there are some simple things you might do to be more successful. Here they come:

1) Rely on your common sense and don’t use drugs. Increasingly I see students using all kind of ‘calm down’-pills. Just don’t. You are good enough when you prepared well. Rely on yourself, and not on a pill.

2) Last minute rehearsing is useless. Instead take your time to relax. When you read all your summaries two minutes before countdown, it will probably create chaos rather than help you out. You better invest in creating a relaxed atmosphere in which you feel not overwhelmed by what you’ve just read.

3) When you get a black out do this: get your face out of that paper. Look outside a window for one minute, and calm your breathing. Then, approach the question rationally. You have been studying, right? Well, probably, the question is about something you have studied then. If you can’t figure out in what direction you should consider the question, try the opposite. What is this question not about? Just throw all theories and skills that are not about this question away (that is: temporarily). That cleans up nicely! Now, what is left in your head? Probably the answer to the question is related to that. However, once you’ve freed yourself from irrelevant thoughts it is probably easier to figure out how to answer the question.

If you still have no clue, go on to the next and let it rest for a while. It will pop up in the end, just don’t panic, and go to rule number one.

4) The longer the answer is surely not the better. No one is waiting for endless musings. A teacher will probably have to check the answer to a question of over 200 students. Unless you really hate her/him, and want the teacher to freak out and go mad, just get to the point and answer that damn question.

5) Don’t draw any whales when you really mess up in the expectation that this is funny and the teacher will grant you an extra credit because you are so spontaneous and funny. Trust me, it has been done before. And it is not really funny. It makes us sad. Very, very sad.

6) Exams can be fun. Yes, you read this very well. An exam is an opportunity to show what you’ve mastered to your teacher. Be proud of that, and dig in to the topic with passion. For that is what this is all about. Or should be, at least.

Good luck, and don’t freak out!

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