As a teacher, learning guide and university student exams are constantly on my agenda. Working with my students always reminds me what enormous pressure exams can trigger. On the one hand it worries me deeply to see how young people struggle so much with exams. However, it also reminds me that I used to feel that way and managed to overcome that debilitating feeling. It doesn't have to be this way and I'll do my very best to make that clear throughout this post. I'll pose a few important questions and will then provide my answers. These answers helped me reach a point where I can now go into any exam with one-hundert procent composure.
Why do we take exams at all, and aren't there any alternatives?
 There are many different types of exams with quite different backgrounds. The most widespread type of exam is that which we are familiar with from school and university. The goal of these exams is usually to assess a certain level of knowledge. With exams teachers are able to assign each student a mark. This mark can then often times decide the student's further educational progression. Essentially a mark is used to quantify someone's level of knowledge. This quantification can then be used to compare students, schools, universities, states, and even nations. It is also used to set educational standards.
All of this still hasn't answered the question though. Throughout the course of my school and university “career“ I eventually noticed that the real reason we take exams is because we need marks. And we need marks because our systems only function with marks. How else would you go about applying to a university program for example? Students from the Sudbury school model offer an intriguing alternative. In Sudbury schools there is no curriculum. Students learn how, what and when they want. If they choose to attend university after graduation, then they send the university an essay detailing why they want to attend that particular university and why they fufill the requirements for that particular course. It works like a charm. Often it even works so well, that these students not only get a spot in their prioritized university, but also end up doing substantially better than their counterparts from the traditional school system.
It's certainly reassuring to know that there are functioning alternatives out there. However, until our systems no longer wholly depend on marks and exams, we first have to figure out how to deal with exams in a much healthier way.
Why do exams arouse such an incredible feeling of pressure?
I think that everyone has been scared of an exam at some point in their life. Why though? In our society so much depends on exams. We use exams as a basis of assessment for nearly everything. The madness begins in primary school and doesn't even stop in one's professional career. A good friend of mine recently started a new job. His first project happened to be the company's biggest project to date and he did an incredible job on it. He saved the company a lot of money, yet they insisted on negotiating his new contract on the basis of an oral exam on theoretical knowledge.
If you don't graduate with good marks, you have no chance at getting into a good university. There are countless examples of this dependence on all levels of society. So obviously a lot depends on exams and marks. Those who do poorly on exams are automatically limited in their educational progression. So it's no surprise that exams, especially major exams, arouse such an incredible feeling of pressure.
Why is it crucial to overcome this feeling of pressure?
Neuroscientists have long since proven that stress is not only unhealthy, but that it also inhibits our ability to think clearly. Simply put this means, if we aren't able to overcome this feeling of pressure and as a result take an exam under stress, we don't stand much of a chance of using our complete intellectual capacity.
How can I overcome this feeling of pressure?
I can still clearly remember the first exam where I told myself: “Today, you are just going to remain composed... no matter what happens!“ I was in high school and that day changed everything for me. Since that exam I haven't felt that overwhelming feeling of pressure ever again. Why? It was the first time that I realized, with complete clarity, that it is really liberating to overcome the inhibition that the pressure arouses. My psychological health improved, as well as my performance. I was finally able to rely on my complete intellectual capacity in an exam. A few important realizations helped me get there:
  1. Exams aren't a matter of life and death. Sure, a lot depends on exams. We established the reasons for that above. However, there is so much that is substantially more important than exams. Internalizing that and taking that mentality into every exam helped me tremendously.

  2. Preparation is everything. I achieve composure through a good preparation. The real reason for that is actually control. What aspects of an exam can I control? Which questions are posed, how I feel on that day, how fair the exam is... these are all things that I cannot control. What I can control though is, how well I prepare myself.
  3. Not all exams are equally as important. Graduation exams are more important than regular exams. University exams are usually all equally as “important“, but most of the time they are so voluminous that it's not always possible to prepare yourself for all of the content. I always begin my exam preparation by gaining a complete overview of the
    course's content. Then I honestly pose myself the question: “What do I even really want to learn out of all of this content?“ Everything that falls through this filter, automatically loses value for me. The way I see it, I don't learn in order to please others. I learn, because I want to learn more about myself and the world around me.
Dre
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