Exam technique and the popcorn effect.

Exam technique is like cooking popcorn. Things take time to heat and then bam! Lot's of popping and lots of marks!

Exam technique is like cooking popcorn. Things take time to heat and then bam! Lot’s of popping and lots of marks!

What is the popcorn effect? It is a high performance exam technique. It debunks the classic ‘mark a minute’ pressure that students can sometimes feel.

Feeling this pressure usually does one thing – it ramps up our fear and anxiety as soon as we get into the exam. We feel that we must be scoring marks instantly – and if we are not – then we are already behind!!! Soon we find ourself looking around at other students and imagining that they have already started to ‘score’ lots of marks and that in some way we are ‘losing’.

This is not only stressful and undermines our confidence…..it is highly unrealistic!

Exam Technique and the popcorn effect:

This is actually how exams work in practice. We get in there, we get settled, we make decisions and plan what we are going to do and then we start answering our first question. No marks scored for the first 5 – 10 minutes! We are preparing. Like heating popcorn for the first few minutes. Not much happening, just a few sporadic pops.

But then things get hotter. The intensity builds quickly as the heat rises and before we know it, there are constant pops going on under that pan lid, coming thick and fast.

This is what naturally happens in an exam and we should exploit it in our exam technique. Especially, if it is an exam based on essay questions. As soon as we start to actually answer a question, the heat is building – our focus grows and before we know it – we start really ‘popping’ – getting lots of information and marks down quickly one after the other, before gradually the process slows down and we come to the end of the question.

Here’s how to make the most of using the popcorn effect in your exams:


In an exam, we need time to prepare. The exam is designed to allow us time to orientate ourselves. This means time to read the questions. Time to let our adrenalin levels settle and our brain to start working smoothly. Time to allow our unconscious mind to prepare our answers in the background (BBC How big is the unconscious mind?). Time to decide on the best order to answer questions. Put simply we need time to prepare. There are no marks at this stage – this is all about setting ourself up well.

(Just like when you first put popcorn in the microwave. )

Starting to heat the popcorn:

 At this point we are ready. We’ve read through the questions. We’ve decided on our question order. Answering our best questions first when we are fresh can really boost our confidence. Deciding at the beginning of the exam and making a note of the question order can help tremendously, because we are getting all decision-making out of the way. We can also make a note of how long we can spend on the question – helpful when we start writing. This part of our thinking is now done.

Now we can focus on recall and composition. Simplify everything you do and allow your mind to get into a rhythm.

(This is the moment when the popcorn is starting to heat up. There are a few pops and more are on their way!)

The popcorn starting to pop:

This is the point at which we begin writing an answer. First things first – write a quick essay summary. Everything you can think of to answer the question – put it down. A quick mind map, diagram or list. Something so that you can get all your knowledge out in one go – in a smooth flow.

Now we are really starting to cook! Our brain is working, making connections, remembering what we’ve learned and we are helping it, by not requiring it to think about essay structure, composition or grammar.

Any new ideas that come up later when we are writing can be added to this summary. New thoughts will come and go very quickly when we’re writing, so having somewhere to put them down and keep going is brilliant! We’ve all been there – had a brilliant idea in the exam, made a new connection and didn’t write it down, and within seconds t’s gone. These new thoughts are highly valuable and often score high marks because we can be at our most creative under these conditions.

(The popcorn is now reaching it’s optimal heat and is just about ready to explode!)

Popping mad! : 

Now you start writing your essay answer. You start with a short introduction based on the direction you want to go and then you get into the bulk of the essay with all the facts from your essay plan just going into it – one after another. You have those facts in front of you so you can concentrate on composing your essay. THIS IS WHERE ALL THE MARKS COME. They come thick and fast at this stage. Lots of marks in a short space of time.

(This is the point at which the popcorn is popping as fast as it can.)

Finishing and re-grouping:

And once you’ve written as much as time allows, you close off your essay with a conclusion and you turn your attention to the next question – but without having to decide which one. You’ve already decided and your unconscious mind has been preparing for it. Have confidence in that – and begin by reading the question again and write your brief essay plan. Start to heat up the popcorn and begin again!

(This is when the you pour out the popcorn and put a new batch in. The process begins again only quicker – because the pan is already hot. You are now completely warmed up!)

Exam technique is not simply about what we know – it’s about how we manage ourself in the exam. Attitude and technique count for a lot when it comes to maximising our results.

This approach can lessen stress and help us to develop a rhythm that adds to our confidence and gives us time to think. This is what exams are about – creating the best conditions in which to think and to put those thoughts down on paper.