By R.N. Whitehead

“I freeze up when I write exams! I study hard and think
I know my stuff, but I freeze and get low marks!”  

Hundreds of high school students have shared this concern with us over the years. When students “freeze,” their low grades do not reflect their true potential. Since the first step in beating something is to understand it, we began to ask students why it was so difficult to overcome “freezing.” Their answers surprised us.


We found that many students who had been exposed to study skills programs were not using these skills because they did not know how to apply them to their own lives. Often when students learn a skill, such as study skills, it is just memorized – not understood

In order to be effective, study skills must be a new way of thinking, a new way of considering information. A student who truly knows how to study also knows what he or she wants out of school and life.  

Students experience difficulty with organization, memory, planning, studying, listening, and writing tests for reasons that cannot be overcome by memorizing a bunch of new rules. The magic of a successful study skills program lies in the way it unlocks the emotional and motivational issues that are blocking success.

Many students arrive at exams in a state of mild anxiety, which grows until the teacher tells them to turn over their papers and begin. The first question looks a little familiar, but they don’t remember exactly how to do it, so they go on to the second, promising themselves, “I’ll come back to the first question as soon as I remember.” 

Then the trouble begins. 

Each question looks more and more like a foreign language. Remembering only a little of each, they try to fake it. That is called “freezing.” The struggle to remember actually locks the information farther and farther away. Their struggles “freeze” them up even tighter.

Feelings of fear and apprehension are not the problem! The real problem is that students “freeze” when they ask their memory to recall information that they have learned and filed incorrectly. The way most students file information for retrieval is similar to blindfolding a filing clerk and then asking that clerk to find a very important file. 

What would your chances be of getting the correct file? Zero. But this is how most students use their memories. They learn information and then file it in their memories incorrectly. When sitting for an exam, they begin to search frantically for the missing files. When this happens, the memory often does not associate well. Mix a little anxiety in and you get the classic exam “freeze.”

An effective study program will address the emotional and motivational issues that are blocking academic success. The secret to overcoming “freezing” is shifting from a passive mind set (“I’ll just sit here and wait for the teacher to teach me”) to an active process of questioning, summarizing and integrating information.

Here are the procedures for active learning:

  • Study Notes: Spend 10 minutes per subject every night and summarize the day’s lessons into study notes. Break the information down into Main Idea, Supporting Details and Sub Details. Make these notes short and in point form, in your own words.
  • Review: 48 hours later, review your study notes. Don’t memorize; just make sure you fully understand what they mean and what the information is about. Turn the notes into a story or a complete picture – use visualization if possible.
  • Keep Track: Keep a student day planner so that you can keep track of assignments, tests, homework and personal information. Make your entries in class as you get the assignments or test dates and look at your book every night before beginning your study time.
  • Learn About Yourself : What things distract you? Noise? Movement? Crowds? When you discover what makes it hard for you to pay attention, make sure you change your environment as much as possible. If noise bothers you, don’t study with a radio on or at the dining room table. Find a quiet place instead.
  • Set Long-Range Goals: Stop expecting school to entertain you. When you learn to stop blaming school for not meeting all your expectations and learn to keep your eye on your long-range goals and dreams, you will begin to feel more control and power over your life. Forget about blaming others; it’s your life! Take the responsibility to get the most out of it. Enjoy!

    About Oxford Learning 

    Established in 1984, Oxford Learning has grown to include more than 100 locations across Canada, the United States, and Qatar. Oxford Learning goes beyond tutoring to help students reach their learning potential, not just for one grade or one year but for a lifetime. The unique programs teach children to learn how to learn.  Visit Oxford Learning in Qatar on-line at or send us an inquiry via email to: for complete program information.