Exam period: “A chance to finally show what you can do”

21 Feb 2023

Excited anticipation instead of examophobia: Student advisor Mirjam Eisermann on the right preparations and effective ways to contain stress.

Mirjam Eisermann, Central Student Advisory Office

Student advisor Mirjam Eisermann

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Be positive, learn from multiple angles and get enough sleep: These are the key recommendations that Mirjam Eisermann from LMU’s Student Advisory Service gives to students ahead of an exam. In a workshop entitled “Examophilia, not examophobia”, she offers helpful hints on good preparation – and on ways to contain any stress that might arise.

Ms. Eisermann, what is it exactly that makes students afraid when exams are coming up?

Mirjam Eisermann: Many are afraid of failure, of losing face, of disappointing others – or, more specifically, of seeing their own shortcomings reflected in the face of the examiner. Fear of exams – “examophobia” (exam performance anxiety) – is a niche form of fear of social value judgments, because it revolves around personal performance and thus appears to pose a threat to self-esteem.

What students need to realize is that an exam assesses their performance but not them as a person.

Why are exams perceived as stressful? Is this stress born of fear?

A certain level of stress – what most of us experience in an exam situation – can galvanize you into action. And that can genuinely boost your performance! But if it gets out of control and paralyzes your thinking, that’s when we talk about fear of exams.

Our brain – or the amygdala, to be precise – then classes the exam situation as a threat and activates corresponding reactions: fight, flight or freeze. In front of a saber-toothed tiger back in prehistoric days, that could save your life. But in university exams, it is not helpful.

One of the workshops run by the Student Advisory Service is called “Examophilia, not examophobia”. How can that work?

Given the right preparation and the use of certain methods, you really can become more relaxed about exams and, in a way, even look forward to them as a chance to finally show what you can do, what you have learned. In my talks, I often speak of the three pillars of enjoying exams, or “examophilia”.

The first is good preparation in every respect. The second is good physical and emotional self-management. And the third – especially for those who do suffer from fear of exams – is to find effective stress regulation methods.

Good preparation

What might good preparation look like?

What does not help at all is desperately trying to plug gaps in your learning the day before the exam. What you need instead is more long-term preparation. One aim is to eliminate any uncertainties about the formal, practical aspects of the examination. What is being examined and how? What is the exam procedure? How will I get there?

Days before a major exam, it might also be worthwhile establishing “motivational” routines to start the day. That sends a signal to your organism: At eight in the morning, we are ready to roll! Another aim is to properly structure and internalize the material before the exam.

We often find that students still struggle through their first few semesters using techniques they learned at school – only to find that linear methods and pure memorization no longer work. Instead, they now need a holistic, systematic way of learning that approaches the subject from different angles. It is also worth asking other students for tips on how they go about learning, as well as making use of support offered by the university.

What support?

First and foremost, I would look for help in my own department – for a particular exam or to prepare for exams in general. The Schreibzentrum (Writing Center) provides support with such issues as writer’s block in the context of assignments, essays and dissertations. I have also launched the series “Studying and Exam Skills” for the Student Advisory Service. The series begins at the start of the semester with workshops on working and learning techniques, leading into motivation and procrastination issues mid-semester and ending with the “examophilia” event we mentioned earlier.

Physical and mental health

And what about the second pillar to help students enjoy exams, good self-management?

Success in exams depends heavily on your physical and mental health. Many people underestimate this point. As far as the physical side is concerned, it is especially critical to get enough sleep and drink enough. You should also take care to have breaks, eat healthily and get sufficient exercise. It helps some students to go for a run on the morning of the exam, or to do yoga.

Regarding emotional health, we often carry “negative beliefs” around with us: sometimes because of exams we have messed up in the past, and sometimes because of issues from childhood. We need to change these negatives into positive thoughts. Saying things like “I just know my mind will go blank again” undermine your confidence in doing well. It is better to cultivate thoughts such as: “It’s different this time, because I am well prepared and I know what to do in a situation like this!”

That said, it is equally essential to engage in pleasurable leisure activities with friends and family if you want to stay healthy, relaxed and on top of your game during the exam period.

Also, it is often helpful to remind yourself that the exam itself is only short and will soon be over – and how nice it will be to have it behind you. Maybe you could plan something like a trip out to the mountains? A law student once booked a flight to take her on vacation just a few hours after her state examination. That gave her a goal to work toward!

Stress regulation methods

But what do I do if the fear won’t go away despite all my preparations?

The third pillar we teach students at our events includes stress regulation methods, which involves various techniques to get yourself focused again. One way is to recall your positive beliefs or activate “tapping points” that you have trained in advance. Gently and discreetly tapping certain points on your body lets you activate soothing trigger points.

Beyond that, our events discuss progressive muscle relaxation, and we also practice breathing techniques. Deep abdominal breathing and exhaling for longer than you inhale always has a calming effect. For example: Inhale for 4 seconds, hold it for 1 second, exhale for 7 seconds, pause for 2 seconds. Apps such as “Breathe” can be useful.

Some students who suffer panic attacks help themselves by closing their eyes and placing one hand on their forehead and the other on the back of their neck. This helps them resurface from the panic. Others bring lucky charms with them, or a prickly ball to rub in stress situations.

If all else fails, you can try to briefly remove yourself from the situation, maybe by going to the toilet. Alternatively, consciously focus your thoughts on something completely different for a moment – for example by counting how many people sitting the exam have brown hair. If your mind goes blank in the middle of an oral examination, you can politely ask for a short timeout, take a sip of water or simply ask the examiner(s) to repeat the question. Don’t worry: You won’t be the first person to have done this!

Have a plan B up your sleeve

What do you do if, despite everything, you still fail the exam?

It is a good idea to think this through in advance: What do I do if this exam does not go well? What would that mean for my studies, for me personally? What would be the worst thing that could happen? Consciously realizing that messing up an exam will not endanger your life can hugely reduce your stress levels, both before and after the exam!

If you are under very severe emotional stress, however, we advise you to seek assistance from the Student Union’s psychotherapeutic or psychosocial advisory services. If this is your last attempt at an important exam, it is also crucial to have a plan B up your sleeve. Here too, support is available from LMU, for example in the form of academic counseling or via student coaches in the various disciplines. As painful as it can feel, when one door closes, you will often find other doors opening in its place.

Central Student Advisory Service: Workshops on study skills

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