How to avoid choking in an exam

As a university lecturer I have seen the “EXAM MELTDOWN” on many occasions. Learners who seem to know their stuff going into the exam, but on arrival in the exam, appear to struggle to remember their name, writing to stop exam choking How to avoid choking in an examnever mind any facts related to the subject.

They are a special breed – THE EXAM CHOKER. They fall apart when the stakes are high and it is imperative that they perform at their best.

Of course, choking is not something that only happens in the exam room, it can happen in the board room and the sport’s field as well (look at the South African cricket team in the recent World Cup).

Medication not really the solution

One way of coping with the extreme stress and anxiety is to medicate. Drugs that come to mind would be anxiolytics, alcohol and beta blockers.

The trouble with medicating, is that most medications will actually turn your brain off, so your performance will still be impaired, you just won’t be worried about it.

Could journaling be the antidote to choking ?

Writing down your anxieties is supposed to take the edge off and so improve your performance.

Writing is already known to be therapeutic when dealing with severe emotional traumas and journaling is practised by thousands of individuals as a way to “be in touch” with themselves.

Could writing a letter to yourself diminish pre-exam anxiety enough to calm you down, so you can think ? Is journaling just pschyo mumbo jumbo or is there actually some science behind it ?


Researchers at the National Science Foundation tried 10 minute letter writing sessions in several BIG TEST situations, involving high school and college students. It worked each time – improving exam scores in both the overly anxious as well as the mildly apprehensive.

In one scenario, the researchers picked on some 16 year old high schoolers writing their final biology exam. As they sat down to begin the excruciating process of writing the exam, the learners received a special envelope. Half of the learners got an envelope instructing them to write about their feelings on the task at hand, the other half, were instructed to write about something else. Ten minutes later, the exam began.

The final scores showed that learners who had an opportunity to unload their pre-exam anxiety, scored better than those who did not.

NOTE : The scores were taken relative to their performance during the year. So journaling won’t take you from a dunce to a genius.

The 10 minute self therapy session particularly helped learners who had previously demonstrated a tendency to choke in exams.

How could thinking about it, stop choking ?

It is already known that there is only so much room to manoeuvre when it comes to “thinking in the now”. This thinking now capacity is typically referred to as working memory.

The researchers speculate that unloading what is driving you senseless immediately prior to writing the exam, seems to give your brain permission to let it go and move on. Letting it go, automatically frees up some room in working memory, which helps performance, because you now have more capacity to actually think.

The pre-exam journaling session

The most obvious place to try it out this anti-choking strategy is immediately prior to a BIG exam or test.

In those traumatic moments immediately prior to commencing, don’t frantically try to stuff facts in your head or talk to your “friends”, who often gleefully point out some obscure fact that you have not studied. Centre yourself and do a spot of journaling – write down you fears.

It’s unlikely to make things worse and might just make things a little better.

PS. If you are a teacher/examiner then make this part of the exam process. Give all learners 10 minutes to write about the consequences of failure. Just before the exam paper is handed out, gather the writing so there is no opportunity to use the bits as crib notes.

Other situations to try it out

Choking is not restricted to the classroom environment.

So if you find yourself with the tendency to choke when

  • giving that all important presentation
  • interviewing for a job
  • sinking the final put on the golf course

Try a little introspective journaling before the BIG event. It doesn’t take filling up a notebook with ramblings, putting pen to paper for 10 minutes could be all that it takes to bring the fretfulness under control and so deliver a winning performance.

Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom. Science, 2011; 331 (6014): 211-213 Gerardo Ramirez, Sian L. Beilock.

Know someone who will find this post useful ? Share it on , ,

Further reading

thumbnail self control How to avoid choking in an exam
thumbnail cottonwool How to avoid choking in an exam
thumbnail bacteria leaving How to avoid choking in an exam
How to painlessly activate the self control muscle Scent Of Fear boosts Performance Stress eruptions cause gut residents to flee

The 7 Big Spoons™…. are master switches that turn health on.

balance eicosanoids thumbnail How to avoid choking in an exam rein in insulin thumbnail How to avoid choking in an exam thumbnail dial down stress How to avoid choking in an exam thumbnail sleep How to avoid choking in an exam vitamin D thumbnail How to avoid choking in an exam microflora thumbnail1 How to avoid choking in an exam think like a champion thumbnail How to avoid choking in an exam
Balance Eicosanoids Rein in insulin Dial down stress Sleep ! Increase Vit D Culivate microflora Think champion

Sign up for the E-spoons E-zine to get a monthly compilation of the posts from 7 Big Spoons delivered to your inbox.

Hire Dr Sandy from a Spoonful of Science to be the keynote speaker at your next event.

Did you learn something new or do you have a different perspective ? I’d love to hear from you so post me a comment below…..

This entry was posted in Stress, Thinking and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Trackback

  1. [...] How to avoid choking in an exam [...]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>