29 October 2016Last updated

Features | People

Ask the expert: my daughter blanks out during exams

Exam blanking often happens to the best-prepared students, because they are most likely to be the ones who fear failure

Russell Hemmings.
1 Jul 2016 | 12:00 am

My daughter, like many students, is very nervous during exams. She studies hard and does get good grades. But she says she blanks out during exams, with the result that she does not get the kind of marks she truly deserves. I wonder if you could suggest any techniques that might help her to feel more relaxed and confident.

This is a very common problem and I’m sure your question will resonate with parents and students alike. Sometimes the weight of expectation that students place upon themselves and the worry that they might not live up to those can actually cause them to suffer from exam blanking.

Exam blanking often happens to the best-prepared students, because they are most likely to be the ones who fear failure. The stress that this fear induces causes the fight-or-flight instinct to kick in. Normal levels of stress can help you think and react quicker, but when this response goes into overdrive it starts to temporarily close down those memory pathways, giving the stressed student the feeling that they can’t remember anything.

Once you’ve identified this is an issue though, it’s perfectly possible to overcome it with a few targeted strategies. Firstly, I absolutely subscribe to the idea of active revision. Many students feel they know the information they are due to be tested on, because they have read through it hundreds of times. However, it often becomes apparent that this isn’t the case when there’s an exam.

Active revision involves distilling down the key information, using mind-mapping techniques and prompt cards, so that the student can eventually get to a point where they don’t have to rely on any notes at all. This is the true test of the exam, so reaching this point is the only way to replicate that situation.

With this in mind, it’s worth talking to your daughter about how she revises for exams as active methods are far more successful at cementing the information in the brain.

When it comes to planning revision, it’s absolutely vital to build in time for relaxation too. Revising for hours on end can be counter-productive. Blocks of 90 minutes focused on a task with 30-minute breaks in between represents the limit of human concentration at its most effective, so try to plan around this.

Time revision so it ends the night before and avoid cramming new information on the morning of the exam as this rocks the confidence.

Achieving a good balance in life between work and time for relaxation and enjoyment is important. It’s worth your daughter focusing on learning some relaxation techniques. Anything from self-hypnosis to deep breathing methods will help to teach her to put herself into a more relaxed mind space so that she can draw upon this skill during the exam. To support this, a healthy diet, exercise and a good sleep regimen are also invaluable.

About a week before the exam, I suggest your daughter starts to drop in some visualisation techniques. By this I mean creating a positive mental picture of herself in the exam, staying calm, answering the questions fully in good time and feeling that she has done well. Mental rehearsal of an anxiety-inducing situation can benefit the nervous student enormously as it allows them to prepare emotionally alongside the more obvious intellectual demands.

Before going into the exam, it’s wise to avoid other people who might be panicking as this can act as a trigger. To combat any feelings of rising panic, she could also practise deep breathing techniques. This involves taking a deep breath, filling the chest to full capacity and then releasing the air with a big sigh, repeating three times. This allows tension to leave the body more effectively.

This more holistic approach to exam preparation unites the physical, emotional and the intellectual so they work more 
in harmony. Hopefully, this will give your daughter that extra boost of confidence she needs to fulfil her potential.

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Russell Hemmings.

Russell Hemmings

Life coach, and clinical and cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist. More info: / 04 4273627 / 055 2867275.