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Everything you need to know about exam stress

Everything you need to know about exam stress

5 min read
  • Stress management & well-being
  • Study skills & exam prep

Every year, as exam season looms on the horizon, tension begins to mount in classrooms. The pressure to perform well, coupled with the fear of failure, can exacerbate feelings of anxiety, ultimately impacting the outcome. The ability to manage these exam nerves and test anxiety is essential in ensuring students’ success.

However, with the right approach, these nerves can be managed, allowing students to approach exams with confidence and calm. So, what does research suggest to combat this anxiety? Read on to find out more about:

  • What exam stress is
  • How exam stress affects students
  • 5 things to do to help your students through exam nerves

What is exam stress?

Exam stress, a term often used interchangeably with test anxiety, is an emotional state characterised by feelings of tension, worry, and nervousness that students may experience before or during an examination. Test anxiety is a substantial part of many students’ lives, influencing their performance and overall well-being.

The nature of exam stress lies in its ability to trigger the body’s “fight or flight” response. This physiological reaction means a student will either be able to tackle the exam effectively or be unable to perform as they are overwhelmed with anxiety. Symptoms can range from mild uneasiness to severe panic attacks and physical symptoms like nausea and headaches.

Recent research suggests approximately 40% of students suffer from test anxiety. This suggests that more than a third of students could be facing challenges directly linked to exam stress, impacting not just their exam performance but their approach to learning and education in general.

How does test anxiety affect students?

Mental and emotional well-being

Studies have consistently shown that test anxiety can have a profound effect on students’ mental and emotional well-being. Research revealed that students experiencing high levels of test anxiety reported significantly higher levels of stress, depression and anxiety outside of academic contexts as well.

Further research also found the emotional toll of exam stress, noting that it can lead to feelings of helplessness and a diminished sense of personal achievement. This emphasises the negative impact test anxiety has on students in their academic lives has long lasting effects, which move into their emotional and mental well-being outside of school.

Social life

Research suggests that during examination periods, students not only experience increased levels of stress markers such as blood pressure, but also demonstrate a decrease in social contact. This reduction in social interaction reflects both anticipatory stress and withdrawal effects, indicating that students may isolate themselves from their social networks to focus on studying.

The findings suggest that the pressure to perform academically can lead students to reduce the time spent with peers and family, contributing to feelings of loneliness and heightened anxiety. Such isolation can create a feedback loop, further exacerbating mental and emotional health issues.

Sleep

A significant body of research links test anxiety with disrupted sleep patterns. For example, one study found that students with high levels of test anxiety reported poorer sleep quality, including difficulties falling asleep and staying asleep. Poor sleep, in turn, affects cognitive function, memory, and learning capabilities, contributing to a decline in academic performance – which is the very outcome anxious students fear most.

This evidence points to the need for healthy sleep habits among students, particularly during exam periods. Simple strategies such as encouraging regular sleep schedules, taking a hot bath or educating students on how using devices negatively impacts their sleep are all ways to help encourage your students to adopt a healthy sleep habit.

We will teach your students to thrive under pressure with key stress management skills. Ideal in the lead up to exams.

5 things students can do to better manage their exam nerves

Considering all the profound influences test anxiety has on students, what are the ways you can support your students through the stressful exam period?

Understanding ways to manage exam anxiety whilst supporting students during this stressful time is key. Exam nerves not only affect their education, but also their wider life and well-being. So, how can you support your students?

Don’t: Put too much pressure on yourself

Encourage your students not to place undue pressure on themselves. Research suggests that students who perceive a high level of pressure from themselves or others tend to exhibit higher levels of test anxiety. Advise them to set realistic goals and remind them that one test does not define their worth or intelligence.

Do: Use reframing

Reframing involves changing the perspective on a stressful situation to view it in a more helpful or less threatening light. Cognitive behavioural strategies like reframing negative thoughts about tests were found to significantly reduce test anxiety and improve performance.

Teaching students to recognise their negative thoughts and challenge them by looking for evidence against those thoughts or finding more positive angles will promote positive mindsets and an improved outlook on themselves and their exams.

Do: Use practice tests to prepare

Familiarity breeds confidence. Uncertainty, on the other hand, breeds stress.

Students who take practice tests as part of their study regimen show improved memory and performance on actual exams. Practice testing encourages the active retrieval of memory and allows for students to become more familiar with the exam style and what to expect, so they don’t feel shocked at what comes up during the exam.

Encouraging students to use practice tests can help them feel more prepared and reduce anxiety stemming from fear of the unknown. Implementing practice questions and tests as homework and tasks will allow students to become familiar with what’s to come.

To find out more about the effectiveness of practise tests and whether it influences test anxiety, read out blog: Do practice tests reduce anxiety?

Do: Better self-talk

Positive and helpful self-talk can be a powerful tool for managing test anxiety. Research suggests students who practise positive self-talk, focusing on their abilities and efforts, tend to have lower anxiety levels and perform better academically.

Encouraging students to replace self-critical or anxious thoughts with affirmations of their skills and hard work can make them more confident in their abilities and less likely to doubt themselves.

Do: Be proactive

In the face of exam nerves, being proactive with communicating and with their preparation is key to ensure they are more confident in their ability to tackle both their exam and their exam nerves. For example, recent research has found that students who communicated more with peers and teachers in terms of difficulties with a Maths equations were reported as feeling less stressed and more supported.

Final thoughts

Tackling exam stress is not only about enhancing academic performance but also about nurturing a supportive learning environment. Exams will always be synonymous with a certain degree of stress. And that can be a good thing. It can help people work harder and focus more. But too much stress can clearly hurt. By implementing strategies that address exam stress, educators are equipping their students with the tools to manage their anxiety in a crucial moment, laying the groundwork for a positive and productive exam season.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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