Ingrid Delange • 05/05/2023 • 11 min read
How to support your students through exam stress
In high-pressure situations, even elite sporting competitors and world-famous performers can lose the ability to do the exact thing they’ve practised over and over again. This phenomenon is sometimes known as “choking”. Similarly, even the best-prepared students can suffer a dreaded mind blank in the exam room. We all want our students’ hard work to be rewarded when they reach the final hurdle. So what can we do to coach them to navigate the pressure?
As they prepare for exam day, students usually focus on knowledge retention – but their emotional readiness shouldn’t be overlooked. Here are a few strategies for equipping your students to manage the pressure and deal with exam stress effectively.
Beating exam stress with the Nudge Theory
“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine!” Students hear a lot of this kind of thing around exam time. It may sound reassuring, but it doesn’t actually help much. As Laurie Santos explained in her Science of Wellbeing course, awareness of our own cognitive biases doesn’t necessarily help us overcome them. Instead, new routines need to be built and nurtured until they become habits. This is where the Nudge Theory (1) comes in.
By shaping students’ environment with visual and aural cues, you can slowly but surely “nudge” them towards better habits that will naturally help them to be less affected by exam stress. It could be as simple as:
- decorating the room with quotes promoting a relaxed and mindful approach
- playing soothing music (2)
- providing materials for doodling or colouring in before assessments begin (3)
- setting up soft, natural lighting (4)
“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine!” Students hear a lot of this kind of thing. It may sound reassuring, but it doesn’t actually help much.
By creating a calming environment, you can indirectly prompt students to break out of harmful routines and adopt a quiet, focused mindset. As a teacher, you can also set the example for students to follow. Try stress management behaviours such as:
- consciously slowing yourself down (5)
- closing your eyes for a couple of minutes to shut out external stimulation (6)
- making mindfulness and breathing exercises (7) part of your routine
To get your students to buy into these activities, give them autonomy and present it as an opportunity to grow. Students are then more likely to develop their self-awareness, explore what works best for them and make lasting changes.
Stress management in classroom routines
Stress management strategies can easily be incorporated into your lesson plans. Take inspiration from the Harvard Health newsletter, which recently provided tips for warding off stress such as:
- doing stretches and relaxation exercises
- taking brisk walks
- working in a quiet environment
- playing soothing music
- practising positive self-talk and countering negative thoughts
- reaching out for help when necessary
Encourage your students to try these out even when time is at a premium. It could be before the lesson starts, while you’re giving out assessments, in short breaks between tasks… They may not see an immediate impact, but regular breaks have been shown to improve knowledge retention, focus and attention to detail. The brain needs time to recharge and process information (8).
Keeping exam pressure in perspective
Especially in international school contexts, there can be cultural or logistical obstacles to implementing some stress management strategies. The routine of simply putting things in perspective is easier to set up within any community, but can be equally effective in helping students deal with exam stress.
Students all experience the same anxiety when they come across an unexpected exam question. This can easily unleash a wave of panic that disrupts their focus for the rest of the exam. Faced with what feels like a threat, the brain produces cortisol, a stress hormone that brings about a “fight-or-flight” response. This inhibits rational thinking, as the brain prioritises finding an escape route (9). Since they can’t run away, students tend to fixate on dealing with the issue – which may only be minor – instead of seeing the bigger picture. Even if they know that they’re wasting time, panic can still prevent them from shifting focus and moving on.
There can be cultural obstacles to implementing some stress management strategies. The routine of simply putting things in perspective is easier to set up within any community.
It is therefore essential to provide students with in-class opportunities to practise a new sequence of responses (10). Psychologists recommend reprogramming the brain by rehearsing under stressful conditions – a common approach in athletic training. This can be scaffolded in class by adding a few harder questions to assignments, perhaps even from outside the syllabus, to trigger stress intentionally. Get students to keep track of their evaluation time and their emotional reaction (emoji work well for this) in boxes next to each question.
Discuss coping strategies with your students regularly. When they’re struggling, intervene immediately and remind them to use their new sequence of responses. If they feel supported, they are more likely to take a step back and ask themselves if a problem is truly worth their time. This more mindful approach gets students used to reflecting methodically, keeping sight of the end goal and regulating their pace and timing. It also helps them to avoid focusing excessively on the harder questions – another common and unhelpful cognitive bias.
Identifying students’ stress mechanisms
Stress can take many different forms. Science tells us that the efficiency of coping mechanisms varies, depending on our individual characteristics and perceptions of stress (11). Some students don’t acknowledge stress at all, while others turn to harmful, last-resort stress relief strategies that only increase their anxiety (12). For this reason, it is important to help your students to become aware of their own stress patterns and to see stress as a helpful safety mechanism.
To support students with this, Lance King (developer of the IB’s Approaches to Learning framework) and Malcolm Nicolson (former Head of Diploma Programme Development at LALATAT) developed a questionnaire and research activities exploring how celebrities cope with stress (13). This student-centred approach is very effective for students who are open to changing their mindset, but there is a risk that it becomes a box-ticking exercise.
Another impactful strategy is to observe students during exam practice and record any signs of nervousness, distraction or coping mechanisms on a simple spreadsheet. This written record of their stress levels encourages students to reflect on their challenges and to refine their own stress management techniques.
Stress is a common mental response when we strive towards perfection. Harsh self-judgement, low self-esteem and the fear of losing face can cause students to doubt their own ability. Encouraging students to verbalise their apprehension and accept their weaknesses has been proven to improve their confidence levels (14).
The “pre-mortem” and the WOOP method
There is no “one size fits all” remedy for exam stress. Understanding your needs, letting go and seeing the bigger picture are all easier said than done. Students need to pick their own approach.
Psychologist Gary Klein advocates the “pre-mortem” technique. This involves looking ahead to identify everything that could go wrong, then coming up with ways to prevent those things from happening, or at least to minimise the damage.
Gabriele Oettingen has developed a more accessible approach known as the WOOP method: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. This scaffolded routine goes beyond positive thinking and meditation exercises. Students single out their true wish and think through the outcome, before visualising possible obstacles and rehearsing solutions to them. This engages students in growth mindset reflections, helping them to manage exam stress using their own inner strength. A host of really great free teaching resources and videos are available to support these activities.
Make exam stress an ally
To be successful in their exams, students need to be equipped to manage the pressure. Mental comfort zones and tried-and-trusted stress management rituals can and should be developed in class. Hopefully, your students might even come to accept that stress doesn’t need to be a curse – if you can harness it, stress can be a valuable ally for high performance.
1. Thaler, R. and Sunstein, C. “Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness”. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2008.
2. de Witte, M., da Silva Pinho, A. and Stams, G. et al. “Music therapy for stress reduction: a systematic review and meta-analysis”. Health Psychology Review, 16:1, 134-159, DOI: 10.1080/17437199.2020.1. n.d.
3. Harvard Health. “The healing power of art”. 2021.
4. Garone, S. “The Health Benefits of Natural Light (and 7 Ways to Get More of It)”. Healthline. 2020.
5. Bernhard, T. “4 Tips for Slowing Down to Reduce Stress“. Psychology Today. 2011.
6. Aron, E. “The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You”. Broadway Books. 1997.
7. Seppälä, E, Bradley, C and Goldstein, M. “Research: Why Breathing Is So Effective at Reducing Stress“. Harvard Business Review. 2020.
8. Wood Brooks, A., Schroeder, J. and Risen, J. et al. “Don’t stop believing: Rituals improve performance by decreasing anxiety, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes”. 2016. 71-85.
9. Levitin, D. “How to stay calm when you know you’ll be stressed“. Ted Ed. 2015.
10. Kahneman, D. “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2011.
11. Davis, R. and Olpin, M. “The Effects of Stress Relief Tools and Interventions on Student Well-Being”. College Student Journal. 55. 17-24. 2021.
12. Conley, C., Travers, L. and Bryant, F. “Promoting psychosocial adjustment and stress management in first-year college students: The benefits of engagement in a psychosocial wellness seminar”. Journal of American College Health, 61(2) 75-76. 2013.
13. King, L. and Nicolson, M. “DP ATL skills Student Workbook”. 2019.
About the author
Ingrid Delange is a passionate and highly experienced IB educator, a pastoral and sustainability leader and an author for both Kognity and the IB. She is currently a founding member of a school in South China, where she is creating an ambitious pastoral framework to develop a cohesive spirit between the local and international sections of the school.