Student on laptop in IKBLC
April 7, 2021
2 mins read

What to do when you're stumped on an exam

Exams can sometimes sling one too many curveballs at you.

And, when that happens, you’re likely to find yourself rather stumped—at a loss for any thoughtful response. Even when you know you’ve studied hard.

I hope that no exam question will catch you off guard this term—but, if any does, here are 4 steps to take to get unstuck:

Step 1: Help yourself keep calm

Pause and take some deep breaths—just a few seconds of deep breathing can help you collect your thoughts and feel calmer. Visualization exercises may help:

Envision pleasant scenery, like a beach or a garden. Picture more joyful times, like going on a nice walk or being with a friend. Think of someone you know who always believes in you, and, in their uplifting voice and tone, tell yourself, “You are strong. You can do this.” 

Pro tip: If you have a personal strategy that helped you stay calm in the past, when faced with other stressful situations, use it now.

Step 2: Reread the question (every word) carefully

A second, close read can help you notice things you might have missed before, and reveal that you do know how to tackle the question after all! Paraphrasing the question can sometimes do the trick as well; a different wording can make all the difference!

But if you’re still a little far from knowing how to even tackle the question, try:

Step 3: Flag it to revisit later, and move on

As you jump to other questions, you just might come across a word, a diagram—anything!—that helps you think of (or recall) a solution. In fact, it is possible that reading another question will remind you about a certain detail. Or, the detail could be in a question. 

Step 4: Now take a stab at it

Circle back to the question that stumped you. If you’re still feeling stuck, take a stab at it regardless—part marks may be awarded for your effort. Here are 3 ways to help you produce an answer:

a) Request assistance

If your instructor has mentioned that they can help clarify questions, reach out to them. Maybe their rephrasing the question will spark a solution.

b) Try an alternative method of elimination

Consider all the key content you’ve learned in the course, and ask yourself: Is there some topic that suspiciously hasn’t shown up yet on this exam...and might this question be in relation to that?

c) Apply relevant key concepts you’ve learned in the course

Show an attempt at logically working out a solution. If you’re tight on time, outline your thought process. Avoid making stuff up though; some instructors have really good Spidey-senses.

Best of luck this exam season! Whatever happens, try to view this exam-writing experience as a growth opportunity, and take it in stride.

P.S. Here’s one more ray of hope: If you find any questions really challenging (or the time too tight), your classmates may be experiencing the same thing, too—and your instructors may be more lenient in the grading.

Header photo credit: Paul Joseph / UBC Brand & Marketing