How the mindset of a sporting champion can help students triumph in their exams

1st March 2017 at 16:00
Winning exam mindset
Psychological techniques used by the world's top athletes can help students to mentally prepare themselves for the exam hall

There are many parallels between exams and sport: intense, one-off events; the culmination of months, if not years, of preparation and hard work, with success defined by narrow margins.

Dr Duncan Fletcher, senior lecturer in performance psychology and management at Loughborough University, believes some of the psychological techniques used by the world’s best athletes in their "mental training'"can be applied to pupils to ensure that they rise to the occasion rather than buckle under exam nerves.

Here are his top sports psychology tips for the exam season:

1. Embrace exam nerves

In a world of fine margins, even the most fleeting lack of focus due to nerves can cause performance to suffer. Hurdles cleared with ease in practice are suddenly insurmountable obstacles on race day.

Similarly, every teacher knows students who are more than capable of passing their exams, but who fail to achieve their potential because nerves get the better of them.

Rather than trying to eliminate these nerves, Fletcher suggests that teachers focus on helping pupils to control them and even use them to their advantage.

One great way to do this is by ensuring students have the confidence that they can perform on the day of the exam. 

"Simulation training", such as holding mock exams which are actually harder than the real thing – by adding more questions, or reducing the time pupils have to sit the exam by five or 10 minutes – is effective as even if nerves do affect a student’s performance, they should still be able to perform as required, because the test itself will seem easier by comparison.

2. Analyse every aspect of performance

Another key area of sports psychology is athletes' obsessive performance analysis, looking for marginal gains. 

Fletcher says that it’s important to discuss with pupils who don’t perform well in these tests why they felt it went wrong, so that they can understand how to improve. This should be collaborative and dig into every detail. Small things can make a big difference.

3. Rehearse the situation

Time should be given to rehearsing the exam day itself as closely as possible, just as athletes run through competition day. This enables pupils to focus their minds on the task at hand, rather than worrying about how to get to the exam hall or being overawed by the surroundings.

“I know a diver who was part of the synchronised dive final at the Olympics,” Fletcher says. “He and his partner rehearsed their entire finals day the week before the event, from the breakfast they ate, to what time they got the bus to the venue, to the exact length that they would have to wait between dives – all so that they knew exactly what to expect. They won the silver medal.”

This tactic can definitely help with exam preparation. While things like what a student has for breakfast are out of a teacher's control, they can still do things like take the pupils to the exam hall so that they’re familiar with the location.

Ensuring any mock exams mirror the feeling of the day itself, such as the wait before they enter the exam hall, what they’re allowed in the exam hall and so on, will help students know what to expect and don’t feel intimidated by the exam situation itself.

4. Anticipate the unexpected

No matter how good the preparation, it’s never possible to predict the exam questions. But, again, there are some sporting tips that can help students to deal with those unexpected questions.

Discuss with students how they’ll react in certain situations, both positive and negative. For example, if they feel that the exam paper has no questions they feel confident in answering, or how to remain calm if every question is perfect for them and that makes them too excited to focus properly.

Verbalising these sorts of scenarios and how to react to them helps pupils to feel confident they can deal with anything the exam throws at them.

5. Teachers need to be visible

The role of the coach in sport is central to the success of the athlete or team – and not just in the preparation stage, but as a visual presence throughout the performance itself.

At certain points, the coach can offer advice, but their role at the performance stage tends to be more to provide reassurance and confidence.

This can be a key factor in success, and teachers should try to ensure that they perform a similar role and make an appearance during exam day. The students will invariably benefit.

As to what you might say to your students, Fletcher says: “You should focus on the facts to boost their confidence: so point out successes they’ve already had, that they sat a mock that was harder and that they’ve spent a year studying and know the subject.”

This is an edited version of an article in the 18 March edition of TES by freelance journalist Daniel Watson

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