I’m a medical student struggling with exams. I have problems recalling information. The moment I see the questions I forget everything. I try my best to calm down and try to remember the answers but to no avail. It’s like my brain just shuts down and refuses to process anything. I never faced this problem during my school life.
This must be so frustrating for you. Exam blanking can feel like an insurmountable barrier - but don’t worry, as there are a number of strategies you can use to overcome it.
As you are studying to be a doctor, you, more than most, will understand that the brain works in mysterious and complex ways, especially when we encounter stress.
When you are in the preparation phase for an exam, the environment is a predictable one and your brain engages in something called ‘cold cognition’. Comfy chair, breaks, a homely environment, perhaps music playing quietly in the background – all of these things minimise the stress and the brain does not release the key hormones that make us feel panicky. Rather, that cool, rational part of your brain does all it needs to do to acquire the knowledge you need for the upcoming test.
Now factor in an exam hall, lots of nervous energy coming off you and other students and the weight of expectation you have placed upon yourself, and the brain can completely misfire when you least want it to. This can happen to even the most prepared, intelligent students, because the fear of failure supersedes everything else. The exam is now perceived as a ‘threat’ and not surprisingly you find you have entered the realms of ‘hot cognition’, where your brain is driven by emotion and illogical thinking and it feels very difficult to regain control.
First, try to unpick what has gone wrong in the past. How do you feel before the exam? How do you feel in the exam hall? Are you working smart in the run up and actively revising? Are there any triggers you can identify that make you feel you can’t remember anything? This will form a good foundation from which to build up your tolerance to stress.
One important thing you can do to help yourself often surprises people, because it’s all about learning to relax more. Perhaps you have placed such a burden of expectation on yourself to succeed, that it’s become too heavy to carry? Learning relaxation strategies will prepare your brain to deal with those tricky emotions that cloud your thinking in an exam. Consider visiting a professional to guide you with this, but there is a great deal of information out there that can help too. Mindfulness is one such tool. This will allow you to focus on the present, whilst at the same time getting you to acknowledge your anxiety and process it, instead of being swept away by it.
When studying, make the environment you work in replicate the real thing as much as you can. Timed answers, solid writing with no breaks, no noise, no interruptions, past exam questions, an exam desk and chair – all of these should be built into your study programme. Discuss your concerns with a tutor and see if they can direct you down the right pathway to access greater support.
Self-care strategies are also very important. Enough quality sleep, good nutrition, plenty of exercise and time simply to down tools and enjoy yourself are vital when you want to achieve success.