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Exam Technique and your Chimp Body

How to keep your chimp body happy and get more marks in an exam - without even cheating!

This blog is about how to make the best of yourself in an exam – keeping your chimp body calm, answering the questions in the best way. In other words, exam technique.

What brought this up? Some of you may know that I’m currently teaching English as a foreign language in Hungary – exclusively to adults, since I’m not nearly brave enough to teach children. I really enjoy doing it too.


However I recently discovered a very shocking thing. The Hungarian adults I’m teaching have not been taught even the basics of exam technique!

Why is this shocking? Well when I were a lass at grammar school in north London, exam technique was taught to everyone in examination years. It got quite sophisticated too, using statistical techniques on the marking scheme to work out how much time to spend on each question.

From the blank looks I got when I asked, exam technique has been left out of some people’s education.

Not cheating

By the way, exam technique is not cheating: it simply helps you make the best of your knowledge and your time in an exam. And until we can routinely scan people’s brains to see if they have acquired the knowledge they’re supposed to acquire, exams are going to be with us. That’s because they are still the least worst way of finding out if you learnt anything.

So here goes with the basics of exam technique. And I’d be very interested if you have any technique suggestions to contribute.

The day before the exam

Finish your revision, make sure you have everything you need already packed. Eat something nice but don’t pig out on chocolate or donuts, and avoid grains since sugar and grains can give you brain fog.

The night before the exam

Watch a movie you enjoy and go to bed early. DO NOT do any last minute revision, you’ll be wasting your time. Do whatever it takes to sleep well, apart from alcohol and sleeping tablets (brain fog again) — read a book, play a non violent computer game, have sex, take melatonin.

Before the exam

If you’re feeling nervous, get some aerobic exercise. The ideal is to do some running if you’re used to it, but walking (briskly) is fine as well.

This is because your chimp-body thinks you’re still living on the African savannah and you’re feeling nervous because you’ve seen lion footprints. The nervous feeling is your body getting ready to run for its life: cortisol and adrenalin are zooming into your blood stream, blood supply to your muscles is increased, blood supply to your internal organs and gut is decreased. That’s why you feel sick and can’t eat breakfast – your gut has shut down.

Where else is blood supply decreased? Your brain. The reptile brain gets what there is and the cortex and neocortex (where you do your thinking) very little. This is why its hard to think straight when you’re scared.

So if you’re feeling nervous, go and burn off the cortisol and adrenalin, give them something to do. Even sprinting up and down stairs a couple of times will tell your poor scared chimp body, that you’ve run away from the scary exam lions and everything’s ok now.

In the exam room

If you can, it’s a really good idea to do some deep breathing. Try breathing in slowly for a count of 5, hold for 5, breathe out slowly for a count of 5, hold for 5. Do this about five times and breathe in again. This will calm your chimp and get oxygen to your brain, by activating the vagus nerve. Or just breathe in deeply with your stomach, out again really slowly and empty your lungs.

  1. When you’re allowed, pick up the paper and read it very carefully, all of it. Make sure you understand all of it. If there’s anything that seems difficult or ambiguous, ask an invigilator. (I’ll possibly deal with onscreen exams in another blog).
  2. When you get to the end of the exam paper, breathe deeply, go to the beginning again.

You’re looking for questions you KNOW the answer to. Depending on how much work you’ve done and how difficult the paper is, there may be a lot, there may only be a few. There should be at least a couple of questions you can just answer immediately.

Do those questions at a quick steady pace. If you find the question is harder than you thought, leave it and go on to the next question you know the answer to.

  1. When you’ve finished all the easy questions, go back to the beginning and read the questions again. Now you’re looking for questions you’re not sure of but think you can work out.

Do them. This is probably the longest part of the exam, where you’re working things out. If you totally bog down on one, go to the next medium hard question, return to the uncompleted question when you’ve done all the other medium questions.

  1. Finally, if you have time, go through the questions again. There may not be any questions left or there may be a lot — the ones you have no clue about, where you missed a lesson, or were busy on your phone or whatever. If there are any questions you don’t know, just guess at the answer. Yes, guess. Take a crack at it.

Don’t do this if you get minus marks for a wrong answer – in that case, leave the no-clue-questions unanswered.

In most normal exams that doesn’t happen. You want to make sure you answer every single question because you can’t get a mark if you don’t answer the question, can you? And it’s possible that your unconscious knows more than you do about the questions you can’t answer and you can squeeze a few marks even from questions that look impossible. So guess.

  1. Finally, if you have time, read the whole exam paper again, looking for stupid mistakes and fixing them if you can. Don’t change anything major, just tidy up a little.

After the exam

When it’s all finished, go outside and walk around a bit. Your poor chimp body has been sitting still and under stress for a long time: make sure it knows that the bad exam lions have stopped sniffing around the tree you climbed and gone home.

DO NOT do exam post mortems. DO NOT talk about how awful it was or how easy. That’s just being horrible to your chimp body which will think the exam lions are back. Talk about anything else, move, eat, let your chimp body know everything’s all right and it can relax.

That’s it. That’s the whole basic technique. There are different things you can do for multiple choice exams, essay exams and onscreen exams, but if you stick to those five points, you can gain as much as 20% on the final score.

And just remember — many top people did badly in exams. Exams are not the be all and end all and best of all, nobody will shoot you if you fail. Seriously. They won’t. If they did, I’d have died when I was 15 and failed all my exams because I hadn’t done any work.

I’m still here and you will be too. Look on it as a kind of game. Good luck!


  1. Judy Rowe says:

    Fantastic! Been a very long time since I was in school, but some of the advice was familiar. Next year I will have to renew my Driver’s License in California USA, and at my age, I may need to do a driving demonstration, but will definitely have to answer 25 multiple choice questions from the Driver’s Handbook (only allowed to miss 3). My chimp starts panicking a month ahead of time–these suggestions will be a lifesaver! Thank you!

    1. Of course, you have to do the revision! Maybe I should do another blog about that?

  2. Mary says:

    Excellent advice. A couple further thoughts on nerves:
    First – some element of nervousness is good. It releases adrenaline which helps you to remember more and think faster.
    Second – if you find yourself so nervous that your mind simply goes blank, DO NOT LEAVE THE EXAM EARLY. Simply wait. Try a bit of deep breathing if you want. After a while, you will start to feel a bit bored and your nerves will recede and you will be able to think again.
    Hope this helps.

    1. Excellent points, especially about the adrenalin.

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