How to help your students cope with exam stress

How to help your students cope with exam stress

Exam season is here. Teachers and students have been preparing for these exams since last summer – and now is hopefully the moment where all that hard work will pay off. However, exams test more than students’ knowledge of a particular subject area. It’s also...


Exam season is here. Teachers and students have been preparing for these exams since last summer – and now is hopefully the moment where all that hard work will pay off.

However, exams test more than students’ knowledge of a particular subject area. It’s also about how well they perform in a timed setting and how they cope with exam anxiety when the stakes are high. It’s perfectly possible that a less prepared student with a cool head will perform better than the student who has studied more, but struggles under pressure.

So, how can you make sure that all your students do well on exam day? Here are some ideas to help prepare your students to perform well in an exam setting, and tips on coping with exam stress. That way, they can give an accurate impression of their knowledge and abilities, and reap the benefits of their hard work!

1. Run practice exams

Your students will already have done their mock exams, but there’s no reason you can’t run extra practice exams in your classes to help your students get used to working under exam conditions.

You can create exams using past papers, or make up your own questions similar to those students will be expected to answer in their exam. Simulate exam conditions as closely as possible, with a silent, distraction-free environment, and set a timer so that students have to work within an allotted time.

Not only will this help your students practise the skills they’ll need in an exam like time management, organisation and planning, it will also identify areas that students need to work on.

2. Give detailed, specific feedback

Help your students to study strategically by giving them specific feedback on their strengths and weaknesses. By giving them detailed notes on the areas where they need to improve, they’ll be able to focus on those topics or skills, instead of spending time studying areas that they already perform well in.

The practice exams can help you to identify your students’ weaknesses. If their answers highlight a lack of understanding on one particular topic, you can recommend that they review this while studying. Or, if you can see consistent problems with structuring exam answers, you can point them in the direction of some resources or exercises which can help.

3. Offer help to tailor study plans

Getting organised to study for multiple exams can be challenging. While it is a good exercise for students to develop their own study plans, some students may need a little extra support in creating a study plan that makes sense and gives them enough time to cover all the areas they need to.

Put the offer out there, and then, when students come to you, you can use the information you have from their practice exams to help them tailor their study plans to make sure they are focusing on areas where they need to improve.

Remind your students to take a short break of a minute or two every 15–20 minutes. They can stretch, walk around, doodle – whatever they like. These breaks help your brain to absorb new information more effectively.

4. Acknowledge their exam stress

Exam stress can really affect students, but there are some ways to support them. Acknowledge their anxiety, first and foremost. Let them know that it is normal to feel anxious during exam season, and that lots of people feel the same way.

Hopefully, students will feel more confident with lots of exam practice, practical support and a good revision plan. But if they are still feeling anxious, let your students know you are available to listen to their worries. You can also offer some perspective. Even if they don’t do as well as they hoped in a particular subject, these exams are just one part of their academic journey.

5. Encourage group revision

Not all students will want to participate in study groups, but for those that do, group revision can be a really effective way of preparing for an exam. Students can share their knowledge and fill in gaps in their understanding.

Peer teaching is a powerful method of deepening understanding and improving retention, so everyone benefits in a study group. Encourage your students to celebrate one another’s progress. Peer accountability is a powerful motivator to encourage your students to keep working hard.

6. Promote affirmations for exam anxiety

Positive self talk is a powerful way to reduce anxiety and feel more motivated. Students can harness this power during exam season by learning to recognise negative self talk (I’m going to fail, I haven’t prepared enough, I don’t understand this topic) and replacing it with positive self talk (I can do this if I study hard, my focus and hard work will help me achieve the grade I deserve).

Develop some positive affirmations for exam anxiety that your students can use both before and during their exams if they’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Here are some examples:

  • I will get a good result in this exam.
  • I have studied hard and I know this subject.
  • I am relaxed and focused.
  • I believe in myself.

Repeating these affirmations for exam anxiety can help students tune out negative thoughts and help them to focus.

7. Teach relaxation techniques

Along with positive self talk, relaxation techniques can be very useful for helping students to cope with stress during the weeks before their exam, as well as on the day itself. Here are some easy relaxation techniques to teach your students:

  • Deep breathing: inhaling through your nose, holding that breath, then exhaling through your mouth can help to alleviate feelings of stress or agitation. This can help students relax and focus at the start of their exam.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: this is another quick and simple exercise which can be done anywhere. Students tense the muscles in their feet for five seconds, then relax. Then the muscles in their calves, then their thighs, and so on, moving up through the body.
  • Mindfulness: students let go of past worries and future fears by focusing on the moment and what their senses are observing.

Further reading

Learn more about supporting students who suffer from anxiety, and how students can use mindfulness to cope with exam stress. Find out how to help your students build resilience, so that no matter how they perform in their exams, they’re prepared to take the next step on their academic journey.

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