Most of us know that terrible feeling of opening up an exam question, reading it, feeling our mind spinning out of control, and just… freezing. It’s what I like to call “exam-freeze.” Sometimes we recover quickly, only losing a few minutes, other times we are off to a rocky start and never feel like we hit our groove during the exam. Either way, it’s a terrible feeling, but also a terribly common one. Fortunately there are strategies you can try to help you fight exam-freeze.
Before the Exam
Here are three things to do in advance that can help reduce the chances of freezing during the exam:
1. Study Smart!
We have heard the advice “Don’t cram!” for much of our lives, but the more complex and thinking-based the material is, the more important that advice is to exam-success. Instead of cramming, study material steadily throughout the semester, get plenty of sleep the night before, and use smart studying techniques.
Studying all of contracts law the night before your contracts exam is going to overload your brain, wear you out, and worst of all, it won’t stick well. Instead, studying a little material consistently and repeatedly can feel tiresome, but there is wisdom in the old adage that “slow and steady wins the race.” Repeated, spaced exposure to material has been proven to fix it better in our minds and improve recall.
In addition to spacing out your study throughout the semester, avoid the temptation of a late-night push the night before the exam. Instead, allow yourself a good night of sleep and a few hours to relax the evening before. Research indicates that consolidation, an important part of forming memories, can only occur during sleep. So you actually need a good night of sleep to get the most out of your time studying before an exam! And for those of us who are prone to freezing during an exam, that adrenaline of a late-night cram session can feed into the fight-or-flight panic we feel in opening up an exam question and make exam-freeze even more likely.
Finally, we all have a finite amount of time, so use it on strategies that will help the right material stick. Focus on the materials for your course, not everything in every commercial outline you can find. Employ active learning while studying to ensure understanding and to better prepare you to apply the material when it comes time to do so in an exam. Ultimately, the more comfortable you are with the material, the less likely you will be to freeze during the exam.
2. Practice, Practice, Practice
As much as possible, force yourself to practice. Do it under timed, exam-like conditions. Check yourself. Re-write your response. Practice when you are tired, when you are wide awake, at home, and at the library. Train your body and mind to take an exam under less than ideal conditions, so when you don’t sleep well or wake up with a head cold on the morning of your exam you have one less reason to freeze.
3. Learn to Calm Yourself
It is difficult to remember, but we do have the capacity to calm our minds and bodies. Before you get into an exam or stressful situation, learn to calm yourself and practice regularly. There are a variety of mindfulness and meditation techniques that can be used for this, two of the most straight-forward are belly-breathing and visualizing yourself melting into your chair.
During the Exam
But what if you have done everything you can leading up to the exam, and you still freeze? Here are three tips to try to get yourself moving forward with confidence if you freeze:
4. Put your Mindfulness Practice to Work
Put to work whatever mindfulness and meditation techniques you have been practicing to calm your body. Taking two minutes to calm yourself will save you much more time in the long-run on the exam, so don’t think of this as wasted time!
5. Start with Notes
Notes are sometimes less intimidating to start with because they aren’t permanent. If you are feeling frozen, take a moment to write down the beginning of an outline on scratch paper. Once you get started, you will often feel the dam break and your thoughts about each element, claim, or question begin to flow.
6. Just Write Something
There is nothing scarier in the midst of exam-freeze than a blank page. If you’ve written a short outline and are still feeling frozen, just start typing/writing. If the question asks “What claims can P bring against D?” Start with the standard response of “P can bring the following claims against D:” and by the time that you are finished writing that, you will probably know how to finish that statement and be able to keep going from there.
With these strategies you can begin to conquer exam-freeze and feel more and more comfortable heading into exams!
And check out these helpful posts:
- How to Practice For Exams in Law School
- Tips for Surviving Law School Exam Anxiety
- Study Tips for Your Learning Preferences
- Mindfulness in Law School
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