Interestingly enough, as this article discusses, how you feel — or, more accurately, how you react to how you feel — can be a huge determinant of your exam success.
What Do Those Sweaty Palms Mean?
It’s natural to feel anxious or nervous when you show up to a law school final. NOT feeling that way would be weird.
What’s critical, however, is how you react to the physical sensation of anxiety or nervousness.
There are two basic options:
- Think, “I’m really nervous. I’m going freak out and fail this exam!”
- Think, “I’m really psyched up and ready to go. I’m going to focus and ace this test!”
Even though it might not seem like it at the time, you have a choice about which story to tell yourself. There’s evidence that consciously adopting the positive self-talk of Option Two, and turning the anxious sensation you naturally feel into a positive motivation, will help your performance.
Try it and see!
How to Free Your Working Memory for the Exam
The second technique seems to work because stress and anxiety occupy space in your working memory (that’s the part of your brain that you need for the test, and you’ve only got a limited amount of it).
If you’re stressed and anxious about the exam, you’re going to have less mental space — literally — for solving the problems on the test. With less available cognitive firepower, you’re not going to do as well as you otherwise would.
How can you free up space for test taking? Well, I haven’t tried it, but the researchers suggest taking ten minutes before the exam to write down all of your feelings about the test. They claim this clears the mind, and allowed naturally anxious students (who normally had impaired exam performances) to perform as well as their non-anxious classmates.
My Personal Experience
Obviously I hadn’t read this study when I was in law school, but I used similar techniques without understanding why they worked.
For example, I had a “high energy” playlist that I listened to incessantly during the exam period, full of upbeat, happy, energizing songs. Before an exam, I’d sit in the classroom with my headphones on, breathing calmly but feeling myself get psyched up. By the time the exam was handed out, I was like, “Yes! Let’s get this show on the road…I’m ready!”
Of course I “felt” nervous, but I consciously worked to reframe that nervousness as excitement, and I have to think it lead to better exam performance.
My advice: Pay close attention to your pre-exam thoughts, and aim to clear your mind of negative self-talk so you can get ready for optimal performance!
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