It can be nerve-racking getting your exam papers back.
The thing about exams is so much intense energy and emotion goes into preparing for them and then sitting them.
Once you’ve sat several exams, you can feel this urge to just move on with your life. Let’s sweep it all under the carpet and forget about the whole ordeal!
But please, resist the temptation to do this.
It’s well worth taking a few minutes to pause and reflect on a few things.
Reflection is like a superpower
When you stop and reflect on your performance, this can help you grow and course correct. But it’s a cognitive skill we rarely use or know how to use in the context of exams.
Why do so many students bypass the exam reflection process?
One reason is reflecting on how you went on an exam doesn’t always feel good.
Unless you are top of the class and/or you absolutely nailed the exam, the process can bring up some uncomfortable emotions (especially if the exam was a total disaster).
It takes courage to look at what led you to bomb out on an exam.
For example, when I got 5% on my first test at Law School, I was filled with shame and embarrassment. But once I let go of all that emotional baggage and showed myself a little self compassion, I was able to look at where things went wrong.
I quickly realised I had no idea how to study. Instead of thinking I had got 5% because I was intellectually not up to the task of studying law, I realised I’d never learnt how to study effectively.
So, I set to work exploring more effective ways to learn. I also got extra help from the university Teaching and Learning Centre to improve my writing skills. All of this made such a difference. In a short space of time, I saw dramatic improvements in my grades and understanding of legal concepts.
What would have happened if I hadn’t stopped to reflect?
I’m almost certain that I would have dropped out of university.
But by spending some time looking at what went wrong (and not beat myself up about it), I could make improvements.
Our fast paced culture doesn’t encourage us to reflect
We live in a culture that is obsessed with being busy. As a result, many of us can’t stand being bored or alone with our thoughts.
So, what do we do?
We fill our days with non stop activity (scrolling through our feeds, texting our friends, and online shopping). All this busy activity robs us of the opportunity to engage in reflection.
As philosopher James Williams states:
“ . . . notifications or addictive mobile apps may fill up those little moments in the day during which a person might have otherwise reflected on their goals and priorities. Users check their phones an average of 150 times per day (and touch them over 2,600 times per day), so that would add up to a lot of potential reflection going unrealized.”
If you can swap a bit of screen time with self reflection, you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve.
How do you reflect on your exam feedback?
The key is to not get too fixated on your grade. Look beyond your grade. Muster the courage to look at and/or listen to the teacher’s feedback.
Now again, this can bring up some discomfort. I don’t know too many people who enjoy someone pointing out their mistakes.
But feedback is super important for learning and growth.
Academic coach Hugh Kearns offers some useful advice on how to deal with feedback in his book 52 Ways to Stay Well: During your PhD, Post-doc or Research Career. Although his advice is in relation to graduate students receiving feedback on their writing from their academic supervisors, it can be applied to handling feedback on your exam performance. He suggests:
• Have a quick look at the document or feedback.
• Have your emotional reaction – cry, get angry, throw something.
• Then do whatever works to calm yourself down. Perhaps go for a walk, have a coffee or chat to someone.
• Once you’ve calmed down a bit, you need to re-engage. Because the longer you leave feedback the worse you tend to feel about it.
• At this point you need to look objectively at the feedback. This is when it can be useful to show it to a third party. They are less emotionally involved and can look at the facts.
What do you do if your teacher hasn’t provided you with much feedback (if any)?
Unfortunately, this can happen.
When I was in university I got some assignments back that only had a few ticks and a grade. What was I supposed to do with that?
Hugh suggests when this happens you need to “go and ask for it [feedback]”. And don’t just say, “Give me feedback”. Ask specific questions. You may want to pinpoint one question that you struggled with on the exam and ask how you could improve your answer.
You may also want to reflect on three key areas:
1) How you prepared for your exams;
2) Your exam performance (how you tackled the exam); and
3) What you’ll do differently next time.
Some specific questions to think about include:
How you prepared
• What helped you to prepare for your exams (e.g., past papers, a study routine, and binaural beats)?
• What got in the way (e.g., distractions, ineffective study strategies, and procrastination)?
• Did you cram? Or space out your study?
How you performed in the exam
• Did you read the questions carefully and answer them properly?
• Did you come prepared with everything you needed for the exam?
• If you found yourself feeling stressed in an exam, did you have strategies to decrease your stress levels (e.g., positive self talk, deep breathing, and/or avoiding looking around at other students)?
• What will you keep doing for the next lot of exams?
• What will you do differently next time? List 1 – 3 things.
• What is one small thing you can do today to improve your performance (e.g., go to bed 15 minutes earlier tonight and/or download some past papers)?
To sum up
No one expects you to be perfect when it comes to preparing for and taking exams. But while the exam experience is still fresh in your mind, it’s a good idea to stop and take stock of what worked, what didn’t work so well, and how you can improve next time.