Oh, those execrable exams

You’re sitting at a student’s desk in a vast hall. The exam has begun and you:

– don’t have a pen

– studied for the wrong exam

– went to the wrong exam room, or

– have no clothes on.

You probably have your own version of the dreaded “exam” dream. Whatever the version, though, the dream no doubt indicates too much stress.

The exam is the iconic stressful situation for good reason. It’s one of the first times in our lives when we have to prove our worth. Do we know our stuff or don’t we? The story will repeat itself in various forms throughout our lives when we do a presentation, give a speech, take part in a debate, perform on stage. But the exam is usually the first hard-core stress-inducer.

High school guidance counsellors will tell you about the pre-exam jitters, the last minute excuses, and the panic attacks.  Sometimes the nervous students are those who know the material perfectly well. But many of them are the students who just aren’t prepared. So if we can help our children prepare for exams, we can reduce their stress levels and ensure better success at the same time.

All too many students (yes, me too, at times) have prepared for exams via the last-minute study crunch. And what does that strategy accomplish? Obviously, higher stress levels and lower retention. It’s true that we may remember things long enough to get an answer written down on the exam paper, but even that flitting memory will waft out of our brains the minute we step out of the exam room.

It’s been pretty well established that the human brain can retain sensory information for a few seconds and short-term memories for about 30 seconds. We can store plenty of information for a much longer time in our long-term memories, but the trick is to get the short-term memories in there. And that happens via rereading, repetition, practice, practice, and more practice.

We sometimes think a teacher’s job is to explain and teach skills. But another big part of their job is to help students with their long-term retention. They usually do a good job preparing students with in-class reviews, practice worksheets, and extra help.

But there’s only so much they can do. It all rides on the students and their study habits.

And that’s where you come in. Is your child cracking open the textbook a day or so before an exam? At that point, you can’t do much.

Get started at the beginning of the next term by asking for agendas that are kept up to date, consistent completion of homework, and regular review of class notes. If you can inspire (or coerce) your child to sit and review the previous week’s notes on, say, every Saturday morning for two hours, that alone would be a huge step in the right direction.

And providing a quiet work area? In our house, the dining room table seems to be the best place for focused work without the distractions of television shows, music, texts or tumblr. I have to say I really feel for students these days, with the innumerable distractions they face every day, but that is a topic for another day.


Margaret Hoogeveen is a local writer, editor and mother of two daughters – mhoogeveen@sympatico.ca

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