April 04, 2016

Moving past “the moment”: avoiding cheating during exams

Ever have your mind go completely blank while writing a test? You are not alone. Unfortunately, this is often when panic hits and cheating becomes very tempting. Deb Eerkes with Student Conduct and Accountability shares advice for moving beyond that moment as she discusses cheating during exams. 

You've read all the tips on this blog about smart studying, time management, and exam strategies (if not, take a look!), and you still might experience “the moment”. You know the moment I’m talking about. You have your exam paper and pencil ready, name and ID number dutifully printed on the front, opened to the first page and your mind has gone completely blank. It is one of the more terrifying moments of your university career — especially when you know you studied and there’s no good reason not to remember the material. You watch the clock ticking away what precious time you have left, and you start to panic. 

This is when many students make that fateful mistake: they believe this blank-mind will last forever and, if they don’t do something drastic, they will fail the exam, fail the course, or fail their parents. There are two things to remember about this situation: 
  1. Catastrophizing only makes it worse. Imagining the worst-case scenario — the one which is the least likely, by the way — just puts more pressure on you and prevents you from being able to think clearly.
  2. This shall pass. The blank-mind moment is always temporary. You will eventually remember what you studied and be able to answer the questions on the exam. But you need to curb your panic so that you can pull it together. 
At this moment, some students will decide they have no choice but to cheat. They might peek at the exam paper beside or in front of them and copy answers, carefully pull out their study notes and put them under the exam paper, or sneak their smart phones out of their backpack and google answers. 

Let me be clear: of all the choices available to you in that moment, these are the worst decisions you can make. Most students are not thinking about the potential consequences of their actions (i.e. getting caught and facing Code charges, failure in the course, a transcript notation, suspension or expulsion, etc.). They are simply panicking and thinking about the short term gains if they don’t get caught. 

How do you move past this moment? 
  • Close your eyes and breathe. Give yourself a moment to calm down and stop thinking about external worries. This “blank mind” moment is here but will inevitably pass.
  • Review the exam and read the instructions. And do it again if you need to. Even if you are drawing a blank, place your mind into the exam by making sure you know what is expected of you.
  • Start with the easy questions first and come back to the difficult ones. Chances are, once you start thinking about the topic at hand and thinking through the smaller, simpler questions, the panic will subside and your mind will become clearer.
  • Challenge your negative self-talk. If you are saying to yourself, “I don’t know what I’m doing” or “I can’t remember anything I studied”, try and replace it with a helpful statement like “I studied and am well prepared for this exam. I can do this”.
  • Work at your own pace. Yes the clock may be ticking, but remember to relax and move through the exam at your own pace. While you may be surprised when the first person hands in their exam, it doesn't mean that you are behind. Keep going, you have this. 
Using these techniques while you write your exam will help you move past that panic and enable you to demonstrate your knowledge in the course. This is where you distinguish the kind of student you are and plan to be in your academic career. You are not the person who cheats their fellow students out of honest grades and you are not the person who can only succeed when they cheat. You do have what it takes to write that exam honestly, and every other exam to follow. 

Respect yourself, respect your instructors, and respect your fellow students. And when that blank-mind moment arrives, remember: it will pass. 

There are plenty of resources available to you online and on campus to help you this exam season. Check out the blog posts “Studying Strategically for Final Exams” and “Taking care of you: essential tips for exam season” for helpful advice on getting through the exam season. Unwind Your Mind is designed to help you de-stress while you study, whether it’s talking to an expert about the best ways to study or cuddling with a sweet puppy. For other information on academic integrity and the Code of Student Behaviour, visit www.ualberta.ca/studentconduct.