Strategies for success: Before, during and after exams


Thousands of students will start writing their exams in coming days, and are putting the finishing touches to their preparation. To build a momentum of ongoing success, they need to understand that it is not only what goes into their learning before the time, but also how they manage the process during and after their papers, that will determine their results, an expert says.

“There is a lot of information available that focuses on the period before exams,” says Dr Gillian Mooney, Teaching and Learning Manager at The Independent Institute of Education, SA’s largest and most accredited private higher education provider.

“This includes leaving plenty of time to revise, developing a timetable and sticking to it, using short breaks effectively and experimenting with alternative revision techniques. Students who kept to their plan will be well-prepared as they walk into the exam room. But now that the revision period is effectively over, both these students and those who are less well-prepared need to understand how they can improve their chances during the exam itself.”

Mooney says that first of all, students should avoid panic.

“Getting excessively nervous is counter-productive. If you do feel panicky, take long, slow deep breaths. This will calm you physically. At the same time, you can give yourself a mental pep-talk by repeating: ‘I will be fine. I am calm and relaxed’.”

Once the physiological reaction to the panic has passed, it is time to focus on the paper and follow these 3 steps:

1)      Survey what is in front of you

“Read the instructions carefully, quickly scan each page of the exam paper to get an overall idea of what is expected of you, and then re-read the instructions.”


2)      Prioritise what needs to be done

“When surveying the paper, place a mark next to all the questions that you can easily answer. Start with these. Also be sure to divide up your time according to the importance and mark weightings of the questions. Answer the easiest questions first to ensure marks in the least amount of time.”


3)      Pace yourself

“Don’t rush through the exam. But regularly check the time left for the rest of the questions. Remember to give yourself time to proofread at the end.”


4)      Answer everything

“Leave those questions to which you don’t know the answers until the end. Once you’ve ensured that the rest of your paper has been answered to the best of your ability, go back to those questions. Then calm down, and try to visualise the relevant material being discussed in the lecture room, or what the section looked like in your learning materials. Your mind may start to pick up strands about the information, which could in turn lead to you recalling the answers to the questions.”

Mooney says one’s strategy following each paper is just as important as the preparation and writing phases.

“Once you are done with one paper, it is time to re-set your mind and give it the best opportunity to perform in the lead-up to the next paper,” she says.

“As you leave the exam room, let whatever happened in there go. What’s done is done, and you can’t change anything anymore. So release any residual anxiety and emotional tension, which will allow you to focus optimally on the challenges that lie ahead.”

She says students should:

1)      Avoid discussing the exam with others

“This will only increase your anxiety if you think that you did something wrong. Remember that the exam is over, you cannot do anything about it anymore, and no other student knows the marking memo,” she says.


2)      Don’t be critical of yourself

“If you could have prepared better, or could have performed better during the exam, resolve to do so for the next paper and move on. Negative self-talk can sabotage your future efforts. Be honest with yourself and aim to do better next time, but don’t bash yourself up.”


3)      Reward yourself

“After the exam, do something simple that you enjoy. This could mean meeting up with friends for a run, watching a comedy or indulging in a special treat. Do something that allows your brain and body to operate outside of the exam-zone for an hour or two, so that you can switch off and recharge. Then tackle your next subject with renewed vigour and determination.”