Why do some Students Struggle with Exam Conditions

Examinations are tests of ability and character that can have a major bearing on a student’s future. For many students, end-of-year exams will be the key indicators of their learning, and the single most important record of their achievement. And yet, many students perform well below expectations under exam conditions, and not necessarily for reasons that have anything to do with intelligence or effort.

The possible reasons for exam disappointment can be sorted under three broad headings: specific problems with completing the exam; problems with coping under exam conditions; and problems associated with being a teenager. Schools need to be aware of all these causes, and do their utmost to help their students prepare for the big event.

Completing the exam

Students only have one chance to get it right, and sometimes a few basic mistakes can undermine hours of worthwhile study. One of the most common complaints from unsuccessful students is that they ‘ran out of time’ to satisfactorily complete the paper. This can mean that they spent too long on some questions while not finishing others, or that they concentrated more on style than on content. Students need to have opportunities to practise pacing themselves, and schools need to offer regular tests that give candidates the chance to complete exam-type questions in a set time.

Another common problem is that students simply misread the questions. This is especially critical where multiple-choice questions are being asked. A good standard of literacy is, of course, an advantage, but even highly competent readers can sometimes provide an answer that simply doesn’t address the question. One of the keys to avoiding this pitfall is to be well-prepared so that the nuances of the topic make the question easier to understand. Students who haven’t studied effectively are more likely to misunderstand the subtleties of the question, or write on what they know, rather than on what is being asked. This problem is becoming more prevalent in what were once numeracy based subjects such as mathematics or physics, as students are increasingly being asked to address problem style questions that demand close reading. It is crucial that students learn to recognise question types and can readily identify key words and concepts.

Students know how important examinations are, and the great majority will study hard in preparation for the big day. But too much study can be counter-productive, especially if the student’s head is being filled with unconnected facts. Although a wide range of knowledge and skills are likely to be tested, no-one expects students to remember everything, and for this reason, exam papers commonly offer a selection of questions. It is therefore in the student’s best interests to put extra study time into two or three areas which they can connect to the rest of their learning, rather than try to learn everything, but not deeply enough. Schools can help by providing access to old papers and by helping students to recognise popular themes or topics.

Coping with exam conditions

Even the best prepared student can have problems with nervous anxiety during an exam, when the mind goes blank or panic sets in. Sometimes, this is a result of poor sleeping or eating in the run-up to the test. Other students enter an examination room filled with confidence which is ill-deserved, and this can be just as big a results-killer as nerves. A little adrenalin is useful under these circumstances, and students need to understand that they will be expected to work under manageable pressure. As few students can be sure how they will react in an exam, schools can do no better than to offer multiple practice tests under strict exam conditions.

It’s not just the mind which can cause problems, however. Look around any examination room and a familiar sight will be of students furiously wringing or shaking their hands. Writing an exam is tough on the fingers and wrists, and students need to practise handwriting for extended periods too.

Finally, the body can sometimes suffer in unexpected ways during an exam. Sporting or other injuries – especially to backs or shoulders – can make sitting for two or three hours a distinctly uncomfortable experience, and poor lighting or air-conditioning can bring on painful and distracting headaches. Students can underachieve in exams because their body, and not their memory, has let them down.

Social factors for teenagers

Examinations take teenage students completely out of their comfort zone. For an uncomfortably long time, they are isolated from their friends and from technology. They are required to sit still and concentrate for periods well past their usual endurance levels, and for some students, this can be a determining factor in whether they succeed or not.

Students who study and do homework while multi-tasking – eating or listening to an iPod, for instance – are liable to struggle once these supplementary activities are taken away. Similarly, students who are most comfortable when working with friends may find it difficult to focus their energies on an independent task for the duration of the exam. Many students are also highly visual learners, whose bedrooms and classrooms are adorned with posters and other colourful distractions, and they may find the sterile atmosphere of an examination room hard to handle for an extended length of time. So far, there has not been much research done concerning these potential problems, but it is worth schools and students finding out more about them.

Schools put a lot of energy into constructive teaching and into giving students the learning skills necessary to do well under exam conditions. However, the fact remains that there are numerous physical and social factors that can also affect outcomes, and students need to be made aware of these too. For many students, a familiarity with exam conditions is what may ultimately lead to a more positive result than a few extra hours of study.