There is nothing more nerve-wracking in physical therapy school than the exams. So much of your success is measured by written exams, practicals and competencies. This creates a lot of stress for physical therapy students.
That stress is at least doubled when you’re not naturally good at exams. But, you’re not alone and there are things you can do to decrease stress and increase performance, including using faculty biases to your advantage, which we will cover in this post.
Practice Makes Perfect
We really only get better when we practice what we want to be good at, right? So, if you’re not good at taking exams, increase your practice time. Your faculty may be able to provide you with some practice questions, or at the very least, a few examples of the types of questions that will be on the exam. Use these to get used to the instructor’s style.
Another option is to have your study group create questions. If you’ve got 5 people in your group, and everyone comes up with 10 questions, that’s pretty much a full exam, and some decent practice for the real thing.
So, you’ve practiced taking test questions and feel pretty confident … until test day. The anxiety sets in, and you can’t seem to …
Studies show that stress hormones, like cortisol, can have detrimental effects on our ability to perform on exams.1,2 The more anxiety you have, the more cortisol you release and the worse you do on those tests.
So how can you take control of exam-related stress? First, show up early. Being late and agitated can affect your performance. Fighting traffic, finding parking and running into the building at the last second, raises your stress level. As you sit down (realizing that you didn’t have time to go to the bathroom before the test), your pre-existing stress is added to your exam anxiety, and your academic performance-killing hormones go into overdrive.
Do what you need to do, to arrive at least 15 minutes early. Take the day off, or leave a little early from work if you have to. Leave your house 15 to 30 minutes earlier than your normal time.
Once you arrive, get settled. Go to the bathroom. Get (or finish) your coffee. Listen to some music. If you can find a quiet corner, there are some fantastic YouTube videos with guided meditation specifically for students who are stressed about exams.
Just don’t spend your last few minutes before the test cramming information in. Fifteen minutes before the exam, you either know it or you don’t. Cramming will only increase your stress level, and decrease your performance.
Now that your stress levels are in check, make sure you have some test strategies you can rely on.
Most exams in physical therapy school have a time limit. When a deadline is imposed, stress can increase, and create a tendency to rush. But, when we rush, we miss things.
Make sure you don’t miss anything important, by slowing down and reading all of the directions and the questions carefully. Pay attention to key words and phrases. Underline or circle them if you’re allowed to write on the exam. Don’t lose points when you know the information, but get it wrong because you didn’t read the directions or the questions carefully enough.
Some academic counselors will advise students to skim through the exam and answer the shorter and easier questions first, and then come back to the harder ones. I disagree with that strategy.
First, the more decisions your brain makes, the more energy it uses, and the less capacity it has for future decisions. So, answering all of the easy questions first, virtually ensures that you’ll be answering all of the hard ones when your brain is depleted.
Second, skipping around the test wastes time (i.e., flipping pages, scanning for the question, looking for the right bubble on the answer sheet). If you answer questions in order, you spend zero time searching for anything you skipped. Sure, you can mark questions for review later, but make a decision and put down an answer before moving on.
Third, skipping around leaves you vulnerable to missing questions on the answer sheet. If you answer the questions in order, systematically filling out the bubble sheet simultaneously, you have a better chance of not missing any bubbles. If you skip around and try to fill in bubbles you missed, there is a greater chance you will skip one, as that answer sheet starts to look like a Rohrchach inkblot.
It is the worst feeling in the world to miss points on a test because you simply forgot to put it on the answer sheet. The likelihood of that increases when you skip around, instead of answering questions in order.
Here’s a secret … faculty are not perfect at writing exams, and you should use this to your advantage. People who are good at testing are often, either consciously or unconsciously, exploiting the fact that test-creators have biases, and that these biases create patterns on exams.
One of the easiest biases to pick up on is when two answers on a multiple choice question are the opposite of each other. Chances are, one of them is the correct answer.
You see, when faculty (like me!) write multiple choice exams, we usually start with the question, and then immediately write the correct answer choice first. Then, we get to work, trying to come up with three more answer choices that are wrong, so that there is only one correct answer. Naturally, the first wrong answer choice that comes to mind is the opposite of the correct one, so there are very often two opposite choices within each question.
If you are stumped on a question, but you can clearly see that two of the answer choices are the complete opposite of each other, the correct answer is probably one of those two.
For more tips like these, download 7 Strategies For Mastering Exams from a Physical Therapy Professor and get even more advice.
Good luck on your next exam!
- Ng V, Koh D, Chia SE. Examination stress, salivary cortisol, and academic performance. Psychol Rep. 2003 Dec;93(3 Pt 2):1133-4.
- Halamandaris KF, Power KG, Individual differences, social support and coping with the examination stress: a study of the psychosocial and academic adjustment of first year home students. Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 26, Issue 4, 12 March 1999, Pages 665–685.