For many students, oral examinations are simply hell: The cause of sleepless nights, sweaty palms and temporary blackouts. They evoke associations with words like, blackout, embarrassment, arbitrary questions and/or losing your voice. Adrenalin is pumping through your body, your mind has gone foggy, and your thoughts are either racing or frozen. You want to escape as soon as possible; and if possible never come back. Yup, we are talking about oral examinations.
As always, there are many different reasons for exam nerves. In another blog article I introduced 5 strategies to help combat exam nerves, in the case of oral exams, exam nerves can be caused by other factors, which is why I wanted to devote a second blog entry to the topic.
Some exam nerves, regardless of the type of exam, are based on real experiences that were such a catastrophe that they should definitely not be repeated. Some students anticipate failure before it even happens. From a total blackout and the resulting embarrassment – not to mention a terrible grade. Others might be sitting their first oral exam at university and don’t really know what to expect, which can lead to anxiety or insecurities.
What can you do to combat these rising fears? This article is intended to give you a few tips to help you deal with exam nerves.
Oral Exams vs. Written Exams
In an oral exam you are required to express yourself accurately and answer specific questions. You are expected to answer almost immediately and there is little time to think the answer through. One of the biggest challenges is being able to deal with questions that might possibly completely confuse you when you first hear them. In a written exam you can miss out any questions that you are not able to answer immediately and then return to them at a later point. But this is not really possible in an oral exam.
Another important point is that – particularly in popular study programs – you only know your tutors from lectures and it is not possible to predict what they consider to be important in the exam. Even though it would be nice if oral examinations were more standardized, they simply depend very much on interpersonal communication, including the impression you make on the examiner. This isn’t always a disadvantage, it can also be positive if you make use of this knowledge.
Good Preparation Can Help Combat Exam Nerves
There are various methods that can be useful for regulating anxiety. But one thing first: Moderate anxiety is normal and even necessary if you want to put in a good or even excellent performance! It is only when your anxiety reaches exponential levels and leads to blackouts, problems with concentration or other difficulties that it is important to consider what causes these reactions (and the fears that feed them).
What is difficult or can cause difficulties is that there is often little personal contact with the lecturer who is examining you, except for short appointments or in over-filled lecture rooms.
And for this reason it is a good idea to gain an impression of your examiner. Listen to what other students say about them – in this way you can profit from the experience of students who have been studying for longer than you have. It may also be a good idea to find out about any work published by your examiner, the focus of their research and interests. This can help to reduce a fear of the unknown. And don’t forget, examiners are also ‘just’ people.
Ultimately, you are often given a list of the relevant literature and/or a subject list that gives you specific information about what you need to focus on. If you have any questions it is definitely a good idea to go to your lecturer during office hours and to ask directly as this will help to solve anything that is unclear.
Dealing With Expectations – And Not Just Your Own
There are expectations on both sides. You are on the uncomfortable side of things, you are the one being put through your paces and being questioned on a particular topic. Try to look at the situation from a different angle. What do you think the examiner is expecting from you in the exam?
The best case scenario would be that you can have a professional discussion that shows that you have prepared extensively and can actively discuss the relevant topic. That means, you are capable of putting in a good performance that is then rewarded with a good grade. The worst case scenario would be: that you know nothing about the subject and there is just an uncomfortable silence in the room, although examiners are generally prepared to try and help you by asking certain questions when they see that you are in trouble.
You do yourself a great favor if you can put yourself in the examiner’s shoes and ask yourself which questions you would pose if you were in their position in order to test a student’s knowledge. Another possibility is to involve other students and try to find out together what the examiner expects.
There’s no way of getting around the fact that you have to revise and prepare for exams. Trying to talk your way out of a question when you have no idea what you’re talking about rarely works. That’s why it is important to make sure you have a broad knowledge of the subject matter. What knowledge is important depends on your course of study and on the exam.
Aside from gaining a general overview of the subject, it is also important to inform yourself about controversial scientific opinions, current theories and/or models and procedures. This of course also includes being aware the examiner’s scientific opinion. This also provides a good opportunity to get together with other students and consider the subject from different perspectives. This can help you to identify any gaps in your knowledge, or any controversial aspects and it is also easier to learn the necessary material when you revise together with other students.
Yes you read it right! For an oral exam it is also a good idea to write notes to help you learn what exactly you want to say in the exam. This of course doesn’t mean simply learning everything by heart, it is more about writing your thoughts down so that you can then verbalize them in a simulated exam situation.
It is important to consider the following: Sometimes what is important, and sometimes how. What involves knowledge that you gain during your exam preparation, while the how relates to how you express this knowledge in order to reach a high level of expertise when you discuss a particular topic. The correct terminology is of course also important as this doesn’t just name particular things, it also helps to provide context.
This is Not a Quiz
Generally speaking, oral examinations are not a question and answer game between the examiner and the student, they are an academic discussion on equal terms. However, this won’t be the case if you – as you might have done in primary school – simply reiterate the answers. You have to be able to consider a topic, theory or question from various perspectives, to provide comparisons, connect your knowledge to what has been discussed during the semester and/or to critically consider the relevant points.
This is not a quiz Source: pixabay.com
The prerequisite for this is that you have a well-grounded knowledge of the topic and that you can respond to any tips given by the examiner during the exam. It is rarely, if ever, the examiner’s intention to let you simply rattle through the exam. But in return, they expect that you have prepared and to have considered the topic in depth. This of course also involves your ability to present your knowledge adequately and to consider it in context.
Assistance Offered by the Uni: Study Guidance
Don’t worry, there is help available and you are not alone in dealing with this. The university also offers help and assistance. You can contact the study guidance department in the university student counseling center. There you can make an appointment for a consultation or take part in workshops that will help you to prepare for both written and oral exams.
And When Nothing Helps?
If you have the impression that you always suffer from the same anxieties, regardless of how well you prepare for the exam, and sometimes you just wish you could run away from the whole thing, then it might be time to make an appointment at the University of Stuttgart’s psychological counseling center. If you have never heard of this, then take a look at: this article where I wrote about consulting a psychotherapist.
Before I finish I would just like to emphasize: You will probably never go into an exam completely free of exam nerves, that’s why it’s not a good idea to try to deaden or suppress your nerves. Being a bit nervous can even help you rise to the challenge. But if your anxiety is stopping you from concentrating or effectively dealing with the situation, then it is definitely a good idea to takes steps to counter this.
Good luck for the upcoming exams!
PS: Have you got any tips on how to prepare for oral exams? Then send them in!