Learning Matters #18 Exam Mindset: a lesson from sport psychology 


Exams can be likened to sports events. Athletes prepare physically, but also mentally. Likewise, students must prepare physically through effective revision, but also get into the right mindset. Below are some examples from Sport Psychology about how athletes are supported in readiness for a big event. You can easily apply these to how you prepare as a learner for a big event, such as an exam or key assignment.  

  1.  Positive Imagery  Visualising successful performance has been found to increase confidence, and will also help players manage their nerves. In this case, pictures are more powerful than words - picturing yourself doing well has been found to be more effective at enhancing mood and reducing anxiety than telling yourself that you will do well. 
  2. Remember your previous best  Thinking about previous positive experiences will help improve your confidence. Remind yourself of a successful performance to help you feel more confident about an upcoming one. Most importantly, think about what helped you do well previously and how they can apply that now. Ask yourself: What three things did you do well? What three things could you do better? What would you do differently next time? 
  3.  Remind yourself of your preparation How well you have prepared for a task is an important source of confidence. Controllable sources of confidence such as preparation will lead to more enduring confidence levels. Reminding yourself of all the work they have put in prior to the exam will increase their feelings of confidence and control in the build up to performance. 
  4.  Focus on yourself and don’t compare with others When athletes compare themselves to others, their confidence suddenly depends on those around them and is not within their control anymore. This is stressful and increases fear of failure. Alternatively, focusing on themselves and what they can control will increase their confidence. Reminding themselves of what they can do will help them to feel more confident in their ability to perform. 
  5.   Remember how you overcame setbacks Research into the mental resilience of Olympic champions has shown how overcoming setbacks has helped them deal with future challenges. Think back to previous setbacks that they have had and what helped them overcome these at the time. Think about what they learnt from their past setbacks. Think about who helped them overcome their past setbacks. 
  6.  Reframe the exam as a challenge, not a threat When you perceive something as a threat, it is more likely to cause you stress. Athletes who reframe an event as a challenge, as opposed to a threat, increase their performance. Instead of thinking about the potential negative consequences of losing, they should reframe the match as an opportunity to succeed. The increase in stress caused by focusing on 'what could go wrong' will also hinder the quality of their sleep the night before a match. 
  7.  Get a good night’s sleep Sleep duration and quality have a significant impact on how you feel and subsequently how you perform. It's linked to creativity, mood and concentration. Be sure not to make the 9 common sleep mistakes and you'll feel fresh and ready for the event. 

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