What to Do when You Blank Out During an Exam

Sitting in an exam hall and your papers are in front of you but you can’t remember a single word of anything you’ve studied.

That’s a nightmare that’s all too real for many students.

School and college students as well as adults taking up studies from all over the world face this common problem. The frustrating thing is that you’ve studied hard before it the exam. You gave your best and now that the time’s come when it really matters, you don’t remember a thing.

Why does it happen and what can you do about it? That’s what we’ll look at in this post.

What happens when you blank out?

A potential explanation for why some people blank out during exams is that they’re so stressed out that their brain reacts by trying to protect it. And in this case, it translates to blocking out the information you’ve learned so far because you’ve associated learning or information with something painful.

You may have overworked yourself and find that you can’t find the energy you need to think about your exam. And you may have strong fears about not doing well which leads to you not recalling information – crazy, isn’t it?

How to overcome feeling blanked out

The best way to stop yourself from blanking out is to deal with whatever study blocks you have before your exam. But for most people, this advice isn’t helpful which is why we’ll keep it to the last. For now, we’ll look at immediate steps you can take to deal with the blanked out feeling.

Focus on one question

A surefire way to feel panic is to read your entire question paper before you start on even one question. There are people who find reading the whole paper useful. I’m NOT one of them. If you already feel stressed out about writing your exams, then avoid going through the whole paper except to make sure that you don’t miss out any questions.

Start with the easiest question on your paper or the very first one in front of you. Focus on that and nothing else. If you’re able to answer this, then you’ll give yourself a boost of confidence which gets you through the rest of the exam.

Take deep breaths. They work

Taking deep breaths to relax has been said so often that it’s practically a cliché. The thing is, breathing deeply for several minutes just works.

When you’re sitting down to write, take a few minutes and focus on breathing. Take one long deep breath lasting 4-10 seconds. The longer the better. Now hold your breath for as many counts. And then when you exhale, exhale for the same number of counts as when you breathed in. Repeat this at least 3 times and aim for 10.

Chances are that mid-way through your breathing, you’ll be so focused on your breathing that you withdraw your attention from the chatter in your mind. Now have a go at your paper.

Write absolutely anything

If you’re allowed to have scrap paper that you can take away or throw in the bin, then this tip will work great for you. If not, make sure you have a pencil and an eraser so that you can erase your first write-ups. Here’s what you do.

If you’re blanking out. Start by writing anything on your paper. This means anything that comes to your mind. Maybe you want to write ‘My mind’s a blank‘ over and over again. Or maybe you want to write ‘I’m a massive failure who can’t do a thing right and I’m never going to go to Uni. And I wish I hadn’t had that coffee earlier although I really fancy cookies right now. And want to get a tattoo someday from the tattoo shop that’s next to the café. One of a dragon with polka dots.

You could also write the most banal answer to the question in front of you. Write the most dumbed down version of the answer you think works no matter how bad you think it is. The point is to just write.

The act of writing in a spontaneous way without editing or thinking too hard is freewriting. And it’s a great way for writers and students to get over a block. It takes a few minutes to work but after you’ve written absolutely anything for a while, you’ll start loosening up and will be able to write your exam more easily.

Close your eyes

This is a weird suggestion and may get you looks from your class supervisor but closing your eyes can help you focus more.

When you’re blanking out during an exam, you’re effectively panicking. And it doesn’t help to see other people bent down over their work and writing away while you can’t even think.

Close your eyes for a minute or so. Do it for several minutes if you can and add some light deep breathing for extra effectiveness. You could count backwards from ten to one while focusing on each number with great intention.

When you open your eyes, rest it on the first question and nothing else.

And start writing. You could even close your eyes and write a few words, opening them to check that your sentences aren’t running off the page.

Closing your eyes removes extra stimuli that could distract you or stress you out. It can also bring a measure of calm that helps you get through all your questions.

Build a positive mindset

This last tip involves doing work before the day of your exam, preferably at least a week or two before the day. Many people hold a lot of negative and untrue blocks about learning and writing examinations. Take a look at the following and see if you’ve ever believed the following:

  • Your results from your exam define you as a person. Getting low marks means you’re a failure and won’t achieve anything else in life.
  • Exams are inflicted as a form of punishment that has no real-world value
  • You have to write your exam perfectly or not at all
  • You otherwise have general feelings of anxiety, stress, irritability, restlessness, anger and other emotions around exams

Dealing with the above mental blocks isn’t easy to do. But for starters, it’s good to be aware of what you’re thinking. When you know what beliefs and emotions you hold, you can start dealing with them. To counter the blocks mentioned above, here are some things to reflect on:

  • No. Your exam score does not define you as a person. Getting high or low marks (or grades) is an event in your life. You can retake your exams and learn better if you do badly now. But you are multi-faceted and interesting and much more than a score on a report card. The sooner you stop identifying with a grade or a score, the better you’ll start doing because you’ll experience learning as the process it is.
  • Examinations seem unfair, but they’re just a way that society and authorities have used to make things fair for everyone. It isn’t practically possible to talk to dozens or millions of students to gauge their understanding. Exams are trying to be fair and practical. They also allow you to develop the ability to express yourself through the written word – something you need for job applications and other things.
  • Perfection kills dreams. It kills productivity. And it makes people go blank during exams. Go into your exams with the intention of doing what you can. You don’t have to get anything perfect. If all you can write is 3 lines for an essay question, you should write those three lines. If all you can answer is one single question then you should answer just the one question. Go for it.
  • This last issue is not something I can help you with in just a few lines. Consider reaching out for help, doing meditation, journaling, getting therapy, and reading books on these issues to help you out. Building a relaxed mind takes time but your productivity and happiness levels boost so much that it’s time well spent.

Never feel blanked out during an exam again

These are the best tips I have to help you do well during your exams, especially when you have the tendency to blank out and lose all memory of what you learned.

The truth is that you likely do remember what you’ve learned, but you’ve experienced so much stress that when the time comes to write, you just stop thinking as a way to protect yourself from anguish.

Work with the tips given here to stop blanking out during exams. You’ll do much better and get results that you’re sure to be happy with.