This technique is the complete opposite of the ‘mark a minute’ advice that students can sometimes be given. Feeling that you have to score a mark a minute usually does one thing – ramps up your fear and anxiety as soon as you get into the exam. You feel that you need to be scoring marks instantly – from the first few moments and if you are not – then you are already behind!!!
This is not only stressful…..it is unrealistic.
In all aspects of life, preparing properly pays dividends. The same is true 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 well. Time to allow our unconscious mind to start preparing our answers in the background (BBC How big is the unconscious mind?). Time to decide on the best order to answer our questions. Put simply you need time to prepare. There are no marks at this stage – this is all about setting yourself up well.
(This is the cheetah shuffling in the long grass, watching and waiting for that perfect moment to start hunting properly. You know the image, the cheetah very low to the ground, all the muscles taught, everything ready to explode at speed, shuffling, getting ready…..)
Starting to jog:
At this point we are ready. We’ve read through the questions twice. We’ve made some notes about what the questions are asking us E.G. ‘Compare and contrast’. We’ve decided on our question order. Answering our best questions first when we are fresh and have time 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 cheetah starts to run. It starts at a jog, it’s watching it’s prey, getting ready, deciding which direction to go in, limbering up.)
This is the point at which you 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 you really are starting to run. Your brain is working, making connections, remembering what you’ve learned and you are helping it by not requiring it to think about essay structure, composition or grammar. You can also add to this summary later, when you are writing – new thoughts will come up and go just as quickly! As soon as you think of them, put them in your essay plan.
(This is the point at which the cheetah is opening up the throttle so to speak. It’s really starting to move, herding it’s prey, stretching out it’s legs. In fact it looks like it’s moving at full speed – but it isn’t yet…)
Running at full speed:
Now you are writing your essay answer. You start with a short introduction based on the direction you want to go in 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 cheetah at full speed now, at full power and with total focus. It’s using everything it has and it has completely committed itself to the hunt, having decided on it’s direction it goes for it.)
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 jog, move up a gear and go into full throttle.
(This is when the cheetah turns on a dime, stops, re-groups and begins the whole process again. And it can change direction and speed very quickly, settle down and begin the hunt again.)
Exam technique is not about what you know – it’s about how your manage yourself within the exam. I hope that this approach can lessen any immediate experiences of stress when you get into an exam and help you develop a rhythm that adds to your confidence and gives you permission to allow yourself time to think.