Especially in an exam that is usually already associated with stress, you may sometimes experience a temporary lapse of memory or a mental block, which we all know too well if our mind goes blank. The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) has compiled helpful tips on how to best prepare for this situation.
Lapse of memory: Always unpleasant, but nothing that cannot be solved
A lapse of memory is caused by extreme agitation or stress that constricts our thinking. You can find more information about this in our blog article about exam anxiety (in German). Even the mere fact that you are scared of experiencing a memory lapse can be a trigger causing additional exam anxiety.
Therefore, the first thing you should do is taking memory lapses for what they are: Not an unsolvable problem of which you have to be afraid, but a temporary lag or detraction during your exam (which is bad enough in itself, of course). Also, a memory lapse is not a sign of being unprepared or not having studied enough for your exam. Actually, memory lapses can affect everyone at some point.
Therefore, we would like to give you some tips on coping with a lapse of memory during oral and written exams.
Memory lapse during an oral exam
- Ask the examiner to repeat or rephrase the question. Then, repeat the question in your own words to re-activate your thoughts.
- Do not hesitate to ask for further clarification if you simply do not understand the question. There is always room for clarification questions and sometimes further clarification is really necessary (as, unfortunately, some exam questions may not be formulated as concrete as they should be). Sometimes, just a keyword mentioned by the teacher is enough to overcome a mental block.
- Ask the examiner to bring up another topic first and to address this question later again. This gives you the necessary distance to the exam question in order to find a new train of thought.
- Sometimes a short break can help as well: Ask if you can open a window and take a sip of water.
- Physical exercise helps to release the tension built up in your body. Walk a few steps or, if possible, leave the exam room for a short period of time. If you feel the urge to do so, you can also scream to release some tension.
- Sometimes, the right strategy can be to openly talk about the fact that your mind went blank. After all, teachers also have experience in handling these situations during exams since many students have already experienced memory lapses during exams.
Memory lapse during a written exam
- First, work on another exam question. Answer this question first to shift your mental focus away from the last question.
- Sometimes it can also help to walk a few steps – even if you only go to the toilet.
- Draw a mind map for the topic, for which your mind went blank, on a piece of paper. This exercise based on free associations can actually help you to leave the dead end in your thoughts and let fresh thoughts about this topic cross your mind. After preparing the mind map, you can normally smoothly resume answering the question.
- Take your time to write down the thoughts that currently pop into your mind. Often, it is enough to put your fears and feelings down on paper to get them out of your mind. This creates room for new thoughts.
Our special tip: A minute well spent
To push stagnant thoughts aside and to cope with the physical concomitants of a mental lapse (e.g. palpitations, breaking into a sweat, shallow breath), concentrate on your own body.
- The 4-4-4-4 exercise for conscious breathing: Breathe in for four seconds, wait for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds and wait for four seconds. Then, repeat four times. This exercise especially helps to overcome shallow breathing. However, you should practice this exercise several times at home beforehand.
- Feel your body consciously: Sit bolt upright, sense where your body touches your seat and backrest, where your feet stand on the floor and your hands rest on the desk. Try to consciously feel these body points. Perceiving your own body helps you to overcome the mental block.
Although these exercises require a minute of precious exam time, the resulting calmness makes up for the loss of time.
If nothing else goes: Make use of further counselling
- The Psychological Counselling Service gives online tips on coping with exam anxiety and offers a counselling meeting free of charge.
- For individual support and information about the adaptation of exams, the Accessible Studying team can help.
We wish you all the best for the upcoming exams. ✊