Facing exams without fear?

I don’t do well in exams. In fact during my first time at university I tried to take papers that had large components of internal assessment in them. Unfortunately I am not able to my practice my usual exam strategy of avoidance for this course. So I looked through a leaflet on exam tips to find someone had opened the cupboard to release a boggart in the form of the following quote:

Simple expression and layout +readable handwriting  +short sentences =HIGHER MARKS

My handwriting has been described as many things during the course of my schooling life but readable is definitely not one of them. “Messy” and “illegible” were the most common terms my teachers used to describe my script, though my all-time favourite is “a drunken chicken making its way across the page” (that’s an actual quote from one my school reports). Suffice to say I’ve had an unhappy relationship with written communication.

I’m sure some of you are wondering if I hate writing so much, then why do I voluntarily write this blog? But I don’t write this blog, I type it. Typing requires far less concentration for me than holding a pen and trying to manipulate my hand to accurately form words. Word processors also have handy things like a spell-check, thesaurus and enable me to go back to ideas I get stuck at a later time. Through the magic of the word processor I can write in a way I feel most comfortable: flinging, dripping, pouring, spattering ideas and sentences around a document until I can read what it is I want it say. Not the most logical of writing processes but it is what works for me.

Putting pen to paper is when things come unstuck for me. I will often get the letters b, d, p and q mixed up as well as e and 3. Punctuation disappears and words meld into each other. If I concentrate really hard, I can keep my writing readable but that comes at the expense of my ideas getting lost. Did I mention how physically painful the process is? I’m sure there’s now a name for why my brain couldn’t – and still can’t – combine my thinking process with the physical process of writing.

Eventually the educational system caught on that there was an underlying problem and in Year 13 I was referred to the Specialist Education Service for help. I was able to utilize a writer for my bursary examinations, however having ‘THIS EXAM WAS CONDUCTED UNDER SPECIAL CONDITIONS’ emblazoned at the bottom of my certificate bothered me so much I never used a writer again. But I still use the strategies I learned from the educational psychologist when I’m in a situation where I need to handwrite.

Thicker pens
Typical bic pens exacerbate my legibility issues because they are too thin, not to mention I’ve managed to break a few with my vice-like grip. A thicker pen with a soft place to grip takes away some of the pain and is a lot easier for my hand to maneuverer.

Mind maps/note sheets
I like to have a place to spatter my ideas around before I attempt to answer a question. Mind maps also are useful because I can refer back to them when I get stuck. Having ideas out there on the paper gives me a skeleton to base my work on.

Writing double or triple spaced
In general I find space for writing in exam booklets too small to easily accommodate my writing. Rather than fight against the tide, I simply double space my work. Double spacing also means that I have plenty of space for revision.

Whisper my work (back to) myself
If I get stuck, I will often will talk to myself when I am writing as way to release ideas. Mistakes are a lot easier to find when I read my work out loud.

Managing fatigue
When my hand starts to hurt I will often shake my hands fast, rub them together or my legs to generate heat, or mime piano scales as ways to manage the pain.

One of the most off-putting aspects of entering teaching for me is not only will I need to handwrite, but I will also be teaching others to do so. How can I teach something that I don’t consider myself proficient in? But perhaps what might at first seem to be a disadvantage may actually be of benefit in the future.

3 thoughts on “Facing exams without fear?

Add yours

  1. I think I may have just taken that exam you mentioned myself; I feel sorry for the poor tutor who has to readand mark it since my handwriting is awful and the whole writing thing was a painful experience. I’m curious as to what type of pens you use since you state you don’t use standard biros?


  2. While this is way too late to help you now, I would have looked into doing the exams on the computer. I did nearly all my university exams on a computer, due to a wrist injury. Since you have a medical condition that prevents good written exams I would think you would have had no trouble getting this help…And there is no mention of me getting special help on any of my transcripts etc.


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