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  • Rachel Shaw

Oh no! Exams are back!

Well....February 7th has been and gone with no sign of the government backtracking on exams taking place this year, leading to a lot of unhappy faces in classrooms around the country.

Exams are always a sticky business, but this year's cohorts have even more nerves to overcome than in previous years. Most will not have sat a 'high stakes' exam of this kind before: and if doing well on all the different styles of questions takes practice - so do the exams themselves.

At Mander Portman Woodward, Year 13 students sit timed essays/papers in the exam hall at least 4 times before the mock. This enables them to get used to pressures associated with being in the right place at the right time, with the right equipment and the right knowledge.

The reasons for doing this are derived from research into how the brain learns and embeds knowledge so that it can more easily retrieved. When students attempt knowledge retrieval in an unfamiliar environment, this increases the stressors on the brain. When the brain has to work hard to retrieve and connect information (for example when planning and answering exam questions) new connections are made along the neural pathways. Retrieval is strengthened and the student more likely to be able to make connections between related concepts and topics.

What is not helpful, is when the brain is overwhelmed by 'task irrelevant' thoughts. As Kuldus et al. (2014) point out, exam performance can be undermined by 'any attention-diverting thoughts that increase cognitive load and interfere with criterion task performance, including thoughts about one’s negative emotional state or other aspects not related to the task at hand'.

Retrieval practice in the form of recalling knowledge to answer exam-related questions is therefore one of the most fundamental and beneficial ways to prepare for exams. Simply 'studying' - looking over notes and text books, does not enable students to succeed when trying to apply that knowledge to exam questions. Indeed, the benefits of exam-focussed retrieval practice have been demonstrated in a study conducted by Agarwal et al. (2014). Their study in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition revealed that exam based retrieval practice not only helped students learn better, but reduced their performance anxiety levels as well - leading to less 'task irrelevant' thoughts under exam conditions.

So while it is true that exam-question focussed retrieval practice is a lot of effort, students can at least take heart that putting in the right sort of effort can yield dividends, not just for their grades, but for their anxiety and stress levels on the big day itself.

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