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  • Writer's pictureIan Gibbs

Exam Tip #17: Tiger!

Read any book on exam techniques, look at any Examiners’ Report or talk to anyone who’s marked exam papers and they’ll all say the same thing: far too many students lose marks every year because they apparently DIDN’T CAREFULLY READ THE QUESTION.

In the examiners’ report I’ve just read (Edexcel Examiners’ Report June 2016 GCSE Geography (5GA3H 01) Question 3 (a) (ii)), it says ‘...some candidates did not read the question carefully and this led to descriptions of the shape (of data on a graph) rather than the reasons for high birth rates...’.

Why is it that in spite of being warned about not paying careful attention to the question, every year many students make this mistake?

Some say it’s because many students are stupid.

I find this hard to accept.

Anyone intellectually capable of understanding Shakespeare, calculus or German irregular verbs must be intellectually capable of carefully reading a question.

So what is the real answer?

I believe it has something to do with tigers.

Let me explain.

When you are stressed, your mind gets flooded with adrenaline.

It primes you for that ‘fight or flight or freeze’ situation.

It sends a message to all your muscles preparing them for imminent action.

It gets your heart pounding.

And, most importantly of all, it hijacks your brain.

I once had to give a speech in front of a group of about a hundred complete strangers.

It was about the importance of teamwork. I spent weeks writing it, preparing it. I must have read it a hundred times with my eyes open, and then a hundred times with my eyes shut. I memorized that speech word-perfect.

Then on the day of my speech, I apprehensively climbed up onto the podium, looked at the sea of faces staring at me, opened my mouth and forgot the lot.

Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment this will happen to you. You will not turn over your exam paper and instantly forget everything you’ve learnt.

But it is useful to understand how adrenaline incapacitates your brain under times of stress.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say there are two ways of thinking: deliberate and automatic.

On the one hand, deliberate thought is when you solve a problem by carefully contemplating all the factors involved, weighing up their strengths and weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages, putting them all in the balance and coming to a careful conclusion.

If you’ve ever tried to do a crossword puzzle or a Sudoku, that’s the sort of reasoning we’re talking about.

On the other hand, automatic thought is all about making snap judgments.

It’s about making a decision ASAP based on minimal input.

We are genetically programmed to think in these two different ways depending on the situation.

There’s a very good reason for this.

Imagine you’re creeping through the jungle, with a club in your hand, on the hunt for dinner. You take another tentative step when you spot, partially obscured by undergrowth, what looks like an enormous tiger resting.

You have two possible modes of thought.

Deliberate thought would go something like this: ‘Oh! That’s interesting. There’s a shape over there that looks like it might be a tiger. I can see something like a head and what could be a paw. But I’m not entirely certain because I’ve got bright sunlight in my eyes and the shadows from the trees can often play tricks with one’s mind. If it were a real tiger then the moving shadows wouldn’t... oh, hang on. It’s stood up. It IS a tiger, and it’s now running towards me really fast. Oh, bo... .’

Whereas automatic thought goes something like this: ‘Tiger? Run!’

Only one of these options leaves you alive.

As far as survival goes, automatic thought has much going for it.

Automatic thought makes you jump to conclusions. It creates a knee-jerk reaction, an immediate response based on minimal information.

So there you are on the day of your exam.

Pumped up to the eyeballs with adrenaline, you flip over your paper and read ‘Discuss the change in Australian tourism over the last ten years... blah, blah, blah.’

Australian tourism! Brilliant! You revised that just last night.

You start to write down everything you can remember. You fill up a whole page.

Ecstatic with your first answer, you confidently move on to the next question.

What your Automatic Thinking missed was the second half of the question which said ‘...and how it has affected ostrich farming’.

Fifty per cent of your marks lost there.

So what can you do?

Firstly, forewarned is forearmed.

Just being aware of a problem helps solve it. If you can feel the adrenaline (such as heart beating a little fast, feeling lightheaded, sweating more than normal, shallow breathing, trembling hands), remember you are more susceptible to jumping to the wrong conclusion.

Take your time.

Read extra carefully.

If you approach each question as if it were a trap, as if it were trying to catch you out, then you’re more likely to pay attention to what it’s really asking.


What is it specifically asking of you?

You only get points for addressing the question, not writing about everything you remember.

When you are in a stressful situation, like encountering a tiger in the forest or sitting an exam, adrenaline can hijack your brain to make hasty decisions.

This is why examiners say that students don’t read the questions properly.

Don’t let this happen to you.

Tip 17: Don’t jump to conclusions. Make sure you’re answering the question on the paper, not the one in your head.

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