Tips to Manage and Prevent Student Stress During Exams

Affordability in Higher Ed
Classroom Dynamics, Confidence, Student Success

Article Summary

  • About 16 percent of college and high school students have high test anxiety.
  • Effective time management can increase academic performance while decreasing anxiety.
  • Tactics like handwritten notes and regular breaks can help students remember concepts more readily.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Tension related to exams can lead to some seriously overwhelmed students. Stress and anxiety are some of the biggest—and most common—obstacles that stand in the way of academic success.

According to author Richard Driscoll at the American Test Anxieties Association, about 16 percent of college and high school students have high test anxiety and 18 percent have moderate test anxiety. The following strategies can be shared with students to build their confidence and increase performance while combatting exam-related anxiety.

Study-smarter strategies for students

Balanced studying

Cramming for a test might seem like a reliable tactic, but this approach will only store information in your short-term memory. Because it’s often bombarded with unimportant information, like what you had for dinner last week or the color shirt you wore to work, short-term memory is temporary, meaning much of this information gets lost for future use. Instead, learning new material in smaller chunks can maximize a student’s efforts and bring the knowledge into long-term memory. Separating elements into larger blocks—chunking—makes it easier to retain and recall information. A common example of this is what most people do when learning phone numbers, where a phone number sequence of 4-7-1-1-3-2-4 would be chunked into 471-1324.

Organization and time management

Research proves that effective time management increases academic performance while decreasing anxiety. Encourage students to reserve studying for when they’re most focused or alert and to keep track of their homework while creating deadlines that break up new material. For long-term assignments, projects or group work, scheduling activities can help students budget their time with a written account of all their work. Segment project milestones so that students can observe how much time they’re giving to certain tasks, helping them identify where they excel and where they can improve. Getting students to build a routine at the beginning of the semester will help them arrive to class focused and prepared for exams.

Memorization tools

Creating a mnemonic device—a rhyme, acronym, organized chunk or imagery—can rewire your brain to recall important information. (Remember 30 days hath September?) Handwritten notes taken during class can also help students commit concepts to memory because writing by hand coordinates both verbal and fine movement systems. According to Dr. Helen Macpherson of the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) at Deakin University, “because we can keep pace typing, but we can’t keep pace with handwriting, it means we have different ways of encoding the information, which in turn leads to richer memory.”

Frequent reviews

Experts say that when you arrive at a place where you feel you know the material, you should continue to study that material for an additional quarter of the original study time. Recitation through writing, reading, touching, hearing and vocalization can all ingrain learning material into your memory for the long run. Reviewing material before bed is another technique that can easily be incorporated each day.

Self-quizzing

One of the best ways to prepare for an in-class test is to take a practice version beforehand. Research shows that test-enhanced learning has a powerful and positive impact on future retention. Quizzing pushes you to get familiar with the material while alleviating stress through positive practice—and ups your chances of retrieving the right answer when you need it during an exam.

Spaced practice

One study found that students who took regular breaks remembered 20 percent more than students who didn’t. Plus, working in smaller increments is proven to increase output. The Pomodoro Technique—which involves working on a task for 25 minutes, taking a five-minute break, repeating four times and then taking a 15-minute break—is a great way for students to do both. Scheduled breaks will optimize test performance, so remind students to spend their time wisely.

Foster course confidence all semester long

Aside from strategies your students can use to combat exam-related stress, there are several ways you can empower students to approach every day AND test day with confidence. The following methods can be incorporated directly into a lesson plan to boost student productivity, retention and performance during exam season and beyond.

Problem solving

When demonstrating problem solving in the classroom, explain every step from start to finish. This will train students to verbalize, understand and remember each choice they make until they can turn this into a habit and put these tactics to use on future exams. Problem solving developed inside the classroom will grow with students as they graduate and start a career.

Accountability

Hold students accountable for success and failure because both impact a student’s performance in your class. If they make a mistake, take that opportunity to help them identify what worked and what didn’t so they can take that knowledge with them into their next assignment or exam. Teaching accountability at this stage will prepare students with managerial skills they may need down the road.

Acknowledgment

Remember to acknowledge students’ achievements—especially after a breakthrough. Recognizing their progress inside the classroom will encourage continued success throughout your course. Without overdoing it, praise for a student can act as the positive reinforcement that pushes them to advance within your curriculum.

Interactivity

Instructors have the chance to modify subject matter in a way that keeps students excited and engaged. Including activities that call for students’ participation will lead to increased engagement with course concepts, and with each other. This allows students to interact and learn from peers while building the critical-thinking skills essential to both college and career success.

Looking to pick up other strategies for boosting student confidence all semester long? Check out our research into the role of confidence in learning and student success.