Banish the blank: How to manage a mid exam meltdown

OCTOBER 12, 2016

As Matrics head to exam rooms to write one of the most important examinations they will ever write, some will find themselves in a terrifying situation where they hit that dreaded blank – an inability to recall information despite months of solid preparation and dedicated study.

“Writing an exam can be a very stressful experience for many learners, even when they were diligent in their revision,” says Dr Gillian Mooney, Teaching and Learning Manager at The Independent Institute of Education, South Africa’s leading private higher education institution.

“Teachers and parents should, as their final act of support before pen is put to paper, empower learners to know what to do should they be confronted with a mental void when they receive their papers,” she says.

Mooney says that the clinical logistics of the exam environment can be unfamiliar and daunting.

“The environment is often a formal one, with rules about where to sit, what you can do, and what you can have with you. It is quite normal to experience exam nerves in an examination venue. However, sometimes students can become so overwhelmed that they cannot remember the material that they have spent many hours reviewing. This can lead them to feel even more panicked and stressed,” she says.

To avoid runaway nerves, learners should do the following in the minutes before the clock starts:

“Firstly, when you receive the paper, carefully read through all the instructions and every page of the paper. Then re-read all the instructions. This will give you a sense of what is expected of you. Remind yourself that even if you do forget some details, it is unlikely that you will completely forget everything.

“Then, while reading through the paper, mark all the questions that you can answer. Start with these questions first. That will give you some confidence and allow your mind some time to process, as well as to start accumulating some marks for the paper.”

If, despite approaching a paper in this manner, a learner still feels overwhelmed, Mooney advises them to take the following steps in order to gain their equilibrium and confidence:


If you feel panicked, take long, slow and deep breaths. Doing this will calm you physically. Getting the physical panic under control is an important step in calming your mind.


Once you have calmed your body, it is time to calm your mind. Give yourself a mental pep-talk by repeating to yourself “I am calm. I have worked hard. I know my work”. You can also give yourself this pep-talk while you are taking deep breaths.


Once you are feeling a bit calmer go back to the questions that you believed that you could not answer. Try to jot down anything and everything that you can remember about the material. You can always cross this out to indicate that it should not be marked.


If you cannot remember any of the material, try to use some memory tricks to assist you. For example, try to visualise sitting in class when the material was covered, or try to picture yourself in your study area with your notes in front of you. Often thinking about the context of the material can help you to remember it.


If you are able to jot down notes about the material, review these notes and see how the information that you have remembered relates to the question. Try to reformulate your notes into a response to the question that was given to you.



Keep in mind that what you are usually marked on is your ability to answer the question. In the worst case scenario, where you cannot remember a single piece of information from your course material, simply try to answer the question from a common sense perspective. You may find that you do actually know quite a bit about the question and may be awarded some marks for your general knowledge. Doing this may also prompt you to remember the course material.

“Staying calm is your most important weapon in the exam room,” says Mooney, “as is keeping a sense of perspective at all times, and endeavouring only to do your best in whichever situation you find yourself.

“You need to remember that you generally have more than one opportunity to perform in a subject. For example, you may write more than one paper for any one subject, and your year marks also count towards your final mark. If, in the worst case scenario, you do fail the exam papers, and your year marks, you may still have the opportunity to apply to re-write the subject.”