Prior to my dyslexia diagnosis, I often struggled with time in exams. With the notable exception of my miss start at university where I stared blankly at the exam paper. It’s hard to run out of time when you don’t know where to start with any of the questions.
A suggested adjustment as part of my diagnosis was 25% extra time in exams. This was something my university implemented for me. I have also taken advantage of this in nearly all of my professional exams too.
That extra time was transformative for me – but not for the reason I thought it would be.
A brief word on “reasonable adjustments”. These are things that are designed to overcome a barrier and level the playing field. They are not to create an unfair advantage.
I struggle to structure my thoughts. A blank page can be terrifying. My problems with memory recall mean ½ was through an answer I’ll think of something I should have included earlier. This can make my storytelling amusing or annoying (depending on your persuasion) but it makes answering exam questions challenging.
Extra time to the rescue
Once I had been granted extra time I changed the way I approached my exams. Gone was the need to quickly read the question and frantically start writing. I’d carefully read the question. I’d highlight and underline words. I’d scribble notes around the question.
A tough first question in an exam can get the tone and undermine my confidence. If the first question was daunting I’d read through all of the questions to find a good one to start with. This can help me get into the flow and build confidence. It’s less of a concern that question 1 is really tricky if I know all the other questions are easy.
I’d get comfortable with myself and plan my approach to the time ahead. These were often 3 or 4-hour exams with my 25% on top of that. I’d plan out my time. 3 questions in 3 hours would be 45 minutes per question, 15 minutes reading the questions & planning, and a 30-minute review.
Once I was ready to start answering a question I would begin by creating a mind map. If there was no space in the answer book I’d ask for extra paper.
Once my answer was mapped out I would start writing my actual exam question answer. I would tick off the elements of the mind map as I included them and cross through the whole map when I was complete.
Most exams I have done have a transparent marking scheme. If a question is worth 10 marks there are probably 10 points that need to be made. It’s possible then to score the mind map to estimate performance during the exam. It’s amazing the confidence boost I got when a couple of hours in I knew I had hit the pass mark. I got reasonably good at predicting my score.
More steps, less time
The bizarre thing about this approach, with all these extra steps, is that it took less time. All that highlighting and mind mapping more than paid for itself. I was calmer in exams and I was more productive. I separated out the different tasks of devising the exam answering approach, collating the stuff that would display the required knowledge, and writing down the answer.
With one notable exception, I never used my extra time. I finished comfortably before standard time in many cases. I also went from failing all my exams to getting a first class degree.
The notable exception was a project management professional exam back in the day they were written out longhand (they are complex multiple choice now). Towards the end of a multi-part question, I devised a much more elegant solution to the scenario. I crossed through the question and started again, proud of the inspired approach I had devised. As I finished the question I looked at my time tracker. I saw how behind I was and I panicked. I was still scribbling when my extra time was up. Even though I did pass the exam but it was not a good approach. My revised answer was probably only worth a few extra marks which I could have easily picked up in later questions.
For long exams I would take advantage of the permitted toilet breaks. I’d do this as much to stretch my legs (I hate sitting still for long periods) and get some fresh air. When you have a schedule in the exam it’s easy to take a 5-minute break to refresh confident that there is enough time.
Adjustments don’t just address the obvious
It transpires that my problem with exams was not the allocated time. My problem was with technique and confidence. I didn’t believe in myself. I’d get anxious. I’d rush to write things down as it passed in my head fearful I’d forget it and concerned about running out of time. As a consequence I’d write gibberish even on subjects I knew lots about. The extra time was a comfort blanket. It allowed me to approach the exams in a way that works for me.
I forgot to request extra time (did I mention I have memory issues?) in one professional exam. Even though I have a great track record with this approach it was a nerve-racking experience to not have that safety net. Anxiety ran high as I turned over the question paper, fearful of running out of time. Confidence can be a fragile thing