How to take the pain out of exam day for your students

Eve Jaremka|August 20, 2020

There are unpleasant experiences in life in which we have little choice but to participate – not least attending a exam which may have implications for your future study or career opportunities.

At such times, the behaviour and foresight of those working behind the scenes can make the difference between a smooth process or the stress boiling over.

Here’s how skilled professional invigilators ensure that one of the most stressful days of a student’s life is as painless as possible.

WHAT ARE EXAM INVIGILATORS?

Simply put, invigilators are the people who walk up and down the desk aisles of an exam hall, supervising students or candidates as they sit their exam.

Invigilators must ensure:

  • the security of the examination before, during and after
  • that candidates have the fairest chance to demonstrate their ability
  • that every candidate experiences equitable exam conditions

They’re also responsible for verifying that all the candidates are in the correct exam and are who they say they are, by checking ID upon arrival.

Often, invigilators can be a school’s or institution’s own teachers or lecturers. But in many cases, educating bodies and universities may choose to outsource the handling of their exam to external contractors, who specialise in managing, supervising and running exams from start to finish.

Exam season: The festival which no one wants to be at

These teams of professional exam invigilators can be likened to security staff at large events – with one big difference, according to Rebecca Niemiec, Head of Exam Management at Janison. “We are by trade event managers, it’s just that we’re managing events that most people don’t want to be going to.”

“Managing a full-capacity music festival or live concert comes with challenges, but by and large people want to be there.

“It definitely adds a layer of complication.”

Clarity and communication is key

Our minds have a much lower capacity for detail or changes in expectations when we’re under stress. That’s why it’s best to prevent the chance of any confusion for candidates and minimise changes if at all possible, says Rebecca, who has been personally involved in managing close to 500,000 exams over the past decade. “Whether it’s a start-time change or a different date, if the information the student has received changes along their journey in any way, it’ll add to the stress,” she says.

“When students show up on the day and realise there’s a difference to the information they had at one point – such as they thought it’s an open-book exam, they find out that it’s actually not, or that a two-hour exam is one-and-a-half hours – anything like that will instantly throw people.”

While some changes are unavoidable, clear communication well ahead of time will prevent many undue headaches for candidates.

“Students feeling underinformed is definitely one of the biggest causes of stress and panic on the day,” says Rebecca.

The venue and its variables

The physical environment is also critical to the smooth running of an exam. It’s an element that, when it’s just right, you don’t notice it. But when it’s wrong – such as a squeaky desk or a wall clock in the room with a loud tick – it can become as noticeable and distracting as a thunderclap.

“Climate control is very important,” adds Rebecca. “We have to be very careful that there’s adequate heating or cooling, the chairs are comfortable, desks are at the right height and that there’s adequate additional equipment for people who need it for equity purposes.”

The correct lighting is also a crucial factor. “Whenever we go to assess a new venue, we walk around with our palms to the ceiling to see if we can find any shadowy spots in the room,” says Rebecca.

“If there’s any part of that room that’s slightly darker than another, it may affect that one candidate’s ability on the day. Likewise, if it’s too bright, or there’s glaring sunlight through certain angles, that could be distracting. There needs to be a really even flow of light throughout the room.”

Other factors to consider are whether the venue is near a busy road or whether there’s loud construction work taking place nearby – as well as potential for other sounds. “We’ve had events before that were near a peaceful park but there were lots of noisy ibis birds on the day,” Rebecca says.

“It may sound a little bit over the top but if we don’t consider some of these things and mitigate it in a way, it’s inevitably going to be a problem for someone on the day.”

Accessibility is also important – such as whether the venue is easy to get to on public transport or on foot, and if there’s ample car parking. “You have to factor in that on exam day people are usually panicking – maybe they can’t find a car park, or forgot their money and can’t pay for parking – we can’t mitigate all these issues but there are always ways we can make the experience smoother.” Again, this is where communication ahead of time is key, she adds.

Calm is contagious

Exams are inherently stressful, particularly if the results have implications for the candidates’ career or life. When managing an exam, it’s important to bear in mind that almost everyone who turns up at the venue will be experiencing some level of anxiety, whether they show it or not. That’s why having a visibly level-headed demeanour is key for invigilators.

“When candidates first arrive on the day and see our staff calm, this will calm them right down as well,” says Rebecca. “If they see us flustered or panicking, they’ll panic with us. It’s like a ripple effect.”

So, even if a massive problem crops up with an exam, invigilators should keep on a poker face and smile, dealing with every issue that arises as though it’s not a big problem.

Invigilators need a strong set of skills and aptitudes, Rebecca says. These include:

  • Organisational skills
  • Strong attention to detail
  • Observational skills
  • Process management
  • People management
  • Strong communication skills
  • High levels of emotional intelligence

“We know that our teams are doing a tough job so we select and train our staff carefully,” she says. “Not everybody is suited to it.”

The many types of Candidate anxiety

Anxiety presents itself in a wide variety of ways. But the ultimate goal for invigilators is to consider all the different nerves and emotions in the room, and getting all candidates successfully through their exam.

“Some candidates anxiety presents as non-responsiveness, however more often anxiety presents as agitation. These are the candidates that require a lot of our focus and attention,” says Rebecca.

“It’s understandable, because it’s a disconcerting environment to be in – when students are in an exam scenario, they know that everything they’re doing is being monitored. We’re basically telling people how they have to sit, act, walk, when they can leave, when they can stand, when they can have a drink of water, when they can go to the bathroom. On top of that they have the nerves about their ability to remember what they need to pass the exam. It all has to be managed with human sensitivity.”

On the flipside, some candidates are the opposite of anxious and arrive packed with adrenaline and eagerness to get the exam over with.

“We work to ensure a calm consistency in the exam room. For example, if a candidate is experiencing a panic attack, we aim to discreetly manage the situation so that other candidates can continue their exam unaware, whilst also supporting the candidate experiencing the attack.”

“Our job is to make it a really smooth process for the candidate from the moment they enter the building through to the moment they leave. We want to make it as pleasant and smooth and straightforward as possible.

In conclusion: Keep calm and carry on

Managing exam day is a fine balance between catering to stressed or agitated students, and not interrupting those who simply want to get on with it – and the stakes are high in terms of getting that balance right.

Rebecca adds: “Experienced invigilators, who manage exams regularly, have a deeper understanding of what the students are going through.”

For a smooth event:

  • Be conscious of candidates’ stress
  • During the exam, eliminate any possible distraction by invigilators – this includes walking around too much, talking unless absolutely necessary, and any noises such as keys jangling in a pocket
  • Remain calm, controlled and considered at all times – no matter what issue arises

If you and your team understand the amount of attention and thought that needs to go into preparation for running exam day, you’ll likely ensure a smooth experience for your candidates.

Give your students the best chance of success during exam season. Janison Exam Management has decades of experience in running high-stakes exam events for higher education, professional certification bodies and more. Contact us for a confidential conversation about your needs.


About the Author

Eve Jaremka

Senior Communications Specialist, Janison

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