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The Freeze... And how to move past it

As exams get closer, I'm spending less time talking about subject content and more time talking about exam technique. For GCSE students in particular, this is the point in the year at which they really need to understand that what they are being tested on is the ability to pass exams. This sounds horribly cynical and we can argue back and forth about the rights and wrongs of our current education and assessment system but regardless, it is what we have to deal with. A student can know every single significant date, name and event of the last five hundred years of history and still fail to pass a history exam. The most well-read, articulate students can find themselves horribly at sea when faced with the demands of a Language Paper Two comparison question.

Teachers in schools work very hard to make the exam papers as accessible as possible and no doubt you will be hearing a lot of complaining about endless practice questions in lessons. There is no doubt that repetition works and there is no doubt that familiarity with the paper will help both in terms of the students' confidence and in ensuring they understand the demands of the questions. But...

There are some students who simply lack confidence. Some of these are weaker students who struggle with the subject anyway but many are students who can understand and answer the questions in less pressurized environments but freeze the moment they open the exam paper. I have seen highly intelligent, well prepared students burst into tears in the exam hall or sit, silently staring at the paper without writing more than a single sentence (which is subsequently crossed out). Doing this in the mocks is a cry for help - if you are the parent (or teacher) of a student who does this, try some of the following. These are not tactics to get the best marks but tactics to ensure that students get something down for every question:

  1. Use the language of the question. Getting starting is often the biggest hurdle and freezing at the very start can ruin your flow for the whole exam. When students struggle to start, the easiest prompt is using the words within the question. If the question is "How does the writer use language to express his feelings?", write "The writer uses language to express his feelings by using a range of techniques". It won't add anything to your answer but it will get you started. Or "How far do you agree that Stalin's economic policies were successful?" can start with the clunky "Stalin's economic policies were successful to some extent." When I'm marking exams I rarely make any comment or annotation on the first couple of lines: they are almost always a warm up for the real analysis.

  2. Focus on quantity over quality. Ultimately you can only get marks for things you have written down so write SOMETHING, even if you know it is imperfect. Some of it might be wrong but since there is no negative marking in exams (exam boards credit students for what they get right; they do not penalize you for what you get wrong), it can't do any harm. It also means that your pen is moving - stopping can be fatal if the pause is too long.

  3. Cut your losses. Students often find themselves halfway through a sentence when they suddenly grind to a halt. More often than not this is because they have come at the sentence from the wrong direction and without a clear idea of where they want to end up. Encourage students to abandon these and start again or move on to a new point entirely. If you don't know what point you're making then it probably isn't very useful anyway.

  4. Recognize the start of the spiral. Lots of students have described to me how their brain spirals into panic when they are sat in the exam. Often it starts with "I don't understand this question" or "I don't know the answer to this question" but quickly turns into "I'm stupid", "I can't do this", "I'm going to fail all my exams". Once students reach that level of catastrophizing it is almost impossible to pull them back so it's vital that they learn to recognize the signs and have a strategy to stop the spiral in its tracks. Which means they must...

  5. Change their inner monologue. This will be different for everyone but for many of my students it's about shifting the focus of their thoughts from them as an individual ("I can't do this", "I'm stupid") back to the exam ("How is this meant to be done?", "This question is hard"). Focus on the task, not your ability to do the task. If your brain freezes up, re-read the question and highlight the keywords to help you focus. Don't allow yourself to think about anything beyond the paper.

I would be fascinated to hear about any other techniques you have used to get past the freeze. But whatever happens it is vital to remember that exams are nothing more than a test of your ability to pass an exam: they do not define you or your value, they simply give you the key to move onto the next stage of your academic life.

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