Mind Games and Multiple Choice Exams

It is possible to pass or fail a multiple-choice exam before you even sit down to take it. The reason is not because of whether or not you know the content, but because of where your mind is at in regards to the test. Content knowledge is part of exam preparation, but you can easily undermine even the best understanding of the content (not intentionally of course).

As soon as we start putting pressure on ourselves to ‘do well’ on an exam, we start using our brainpower to focus on the ‘what ifs’ rather than the test itself. For example, if I don’t pass this test I will fail my class, not get my license/certification, and lose my job. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy and a downward spiral. We start worrying and doubting ourselves, and as Mark Twain says “Worrying is like paying a debt you don’t owe”.

The problem with worrying about passing an exam is that there are too many outside factors in any exam process. You could just have a ‘bad day’ or get cut off in traffic, and fail the exam. Sometimes the questions on the test seem to ‘trick you’ or not match what you studied.   If it is a pen and paper exam, sometimes you just put the answer to number 6 in number 7 and then continue a trend…

Passing or failing an exam does not reflect on you as a person. You are not a ‘good’ person if you pass or a ‘bad’ person if you fail. All a pass or fail says is if you were able to demonstrate you have the knowledge tested on the day you took the test. Passing a test does not even mean you are competent (as they measure knowledge not competency) so you need to give yourself a break. You can usually retake an exam. The key is to not work yourself up into a difficult spot to give yourself the best chance to pass (no matter if it is the first, second or subsequent exams).

To prepare yourself for an exam, you need to study and review the materials, but not stress yourself out while doing it (easier said than done, I know). In an ideal world you should walk into an exam knowing you studied the best you could and are prepared (without worrying about passing or failing). Focusing on how well you prepared (rather than how well you will do) may sound like a small change but it can be huge. It is a different mindset that gives yourself credit for what you have done, rather than focusing on what you might not do.

To help you feel that you did everything you could, set up a study plan, follow it and document your progress (see https://jasonzigmont.net/2016/02/27/cracking-multiple-choice-tests-gaming-the-system/ for more on what to study). Studying is like working out. 1-2 hours a day is about what your mind (and body) can take. You wouldn’t ‘cram’ for a bodybuilding contest by working out for a week straight beforehand, and the same goes for testing.   Ideally, set aside two study blocks (about an hour each) every day. Track what you have done so that at the end of your plan you can reflect and feel ready.

Our minds are not created to retain large chunks of information and to be able to recall it. We need the small chunks, with rest in between, to move the information into long-term storage. Cramming the day (or even a few days) before rarely works. The result of cramming is building up worry and doubt in most cases. Adults with families often also add on guilt from the cramming as they are away from their family for an extended period.  Cramming will naturally make you focus on the test rather than the knowledge, which will increase your anxiety.

Within your study plan, the last 1-2 days before the test should be planned rest (i.e. anything but studying). Find something to keep you centered. You may enjoy yoga, meditation, a nice meal, whatever helps you relax should be on the schedule. Be careful with alcohol and other substances shortly before the exam.

The other caution for exam taking is your friends, family, and coworkers. All too often well-meaning friends and family may raise your anxiety level. You may be better off not sharing the exact exam date (allows you not to have to share your results) and keeping the exam out of dinner or work conversation. I am sure they all want you to do well and feel supportive, but sometimes you wish they would “just stop helping me…”

Keep your focus on studying and good things. A great exercise (and good habit in general) is to write down “3 good things” each day before you go to bed. The three good things can be anything (sometimes as simple as you are having a good hair day) but the intent is to go to bed thinking about the good of the day, which will help you to keep a positive outlook.

The last word of caution… What works for one person in testing may not work for you. Don’t be concerned if your study plan is different than someone else’s. You should have an individualized study and test taking plan. If you need help creating one, I now offer a four session package to help at https://www.popexpert.com/jason-zigmont/packages/personalized-test-taking-strategies

This article was written by Jason Zigmont. Jason Zigmont is a coach, consultant and author and can be found at http://www.jasonzigmont.net, on Twitter and Facebook. Jason holds a PhD in Adult Learning and provides coaching services at http://www.jasonzigmont.com


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