Reducing student exam stress

Nick Brooking, Head of Mathematics at Peace Lutheran College, has been investigating strategies to reduce exam anxiety among his students – the first cohort to face Queensland's new external examinations. In today's reader submission he shares what has happened so far and some of the feedback from students.

Exams. For most, the mere mention conjures images of desks laid out in daunting rows, memories of stern looking invigilators, and cold sweats. And this is just amongst graduates, those of us whom again need never sit writing frantically as the clock ticks.

This year, students in Queensland face the first subject specific external examinations under the new ATAR system, rather than receiving an OP (Overall Position) score with individual subject results based purely on internal assessment. Even without the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was fair to say that the 2020 cohort would face pressures that previous Queensland Year 12s had not. Whilst the decision of the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority's decision to remove one internal assessment piece has been greatly welcomed by students, facing the first external examinations in a new system after such a turbulent year has many experiencing significant pressures.

What are some of the practical steps teachers can take to reduce this pressure and anxiety? Many teachers in Queensland bring with them a wealth of experience from systems that make use of external examinations. Having spent nine years teaching in England's SATS, GCSE and A-level systems, I am acutely aware of the positive impacts of reducing student anxiety in exams.

After attending a ‘Reducing Exam Stress' session at a Queensland Association of Mathematics Teacher's professional development evening in May 2019 I decided to increase my understanding of this often overlooked topic, and subsequently extend the strategies that I had been incorporating in my teaching for years, and gather some simple data on just how effective they were.

My Year 11 Mathematical Methods class were scheduled to sit their Unit 1 exam a week-and-a-half after the PD session which I attended. With this and the PD discussions in mind, I planned a series of activities and actions:

  • An in-class discussion on cortisol and its effect on the brain;
  • A presentation to the year group on brain chemistry and how to regulate cortisol, dopamine and melatonin in order to maximise academic results;
  • Putting a Post-it note with a message of encouragement on each students' exam paper; and,
  • Placing a lolly on each students' exam paper.

I had previously employed some of these strategies in non-structured formats, such as discussing stress-management in exam situations with students informally and sharing jokes with students before exams. I now formalised and extended these practices.

Students were asked to rate their anxiety/stress concerning the exam as a score out of 10 (with 0 being not anxious/stressed and 10 being most anxious/stressed) both prior to and after these actions. The average rating of student anxiety prior to the activities was 7.28, and after the activities this had dropped to 5.57, a reduction of 23.5 per cent. Due to time constraints, this data was collected as a reflection. I will look to repeat this data collection with future classes as pre- and post-exam surveys to avoid skewing of the results due to hindsight.

Students were also asked to rate the four actions in terms of their impact on their exam anxiety/stress, with a score out of five (five being the highest impact). All four actions rated highly among students. Placing a lolly on the desk topped the list, scoring an average of 4.5, followed by the in-class discussion about cortisol (4.29), message of encouragement (4.21) and the year group presentation about brain chemistry (4.07).

Finally, students were given the opportunity to comment on the impact which they felt these activities and actions had on their exam anxiety/stress (if any). These comments were typical of the feedback I received:

‘After understanding what is happening chemically in our bodies, self-realisation made it much easier to ignore stress and think logically. Having a structured approach to the exam helped too.'

‘These activities reshaped my approach to exams which made me feel more comfortable during the exam.'

Having been surprised by just how helpful my students found these simple activities, they were extended to a colleague's Year 11 Essential Mathematics class. It was encouraging to see students with distinctly different academic goals providing very similar anecdotal feedback. For their Unit 2 exams in August, students in both classes were reminded of the brain chemistry associated with exam stress and had a lolly and joke or meme attached to their exam. Once again, students provided feedback that this reduced their anxiety.

Going forward, anxiety-reducing activities are being delivered to an extended number of classes and activities are being developed which focus on improving students' mindset based on the work of Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler. This includes celebrating both successes and challenges. Celebrating mistakes as opportunities to learn, and adapting student language in class discussions to be increasingly inclusive and supportive. The original research class will also begin practising ‘power poses' in the lead up to their Unit 3 exam, based on the work of Amy Cuddy (2012).

Using break-out rooms in Zoom during the move to off-site learning as a result of the pandemic saw students more comfortable to share personal success, and for the whole group to celebrate this together. I've also introduced a spaced-revision program to regularly review and refresh students' understanding of a year's worth of topics – they were previously used to just reviewing a single term. Students have reported a significant increase in confidence and therefore reduction in anxiety when approaching questions that require them to recall content and apply procedures learnt almost a year ago, as well as finding that the repetition of questions allows them to consolidate techniques required for exam style questions on specific topics. For example, here's one student's feedback.

‘The timing of each paper is also well distributed so that past topics aren't completely unfamiliar but enough to enable active recall. Further, by repeating similar questions, I am finding it easier to know what approach to use for certain questions and become more comfortable with the exam's overall style'

Before undertaking these actions to reduce students' exam anxiety, I expected there to be a small but worthwhile impact. Having recorded students' reported anxiety/stress levels before and after these actions were taken, I am surprised by the size of impact that students have reported and now consider it to be a worthwhile practice to implement with all of my classes.

References and related reading

Cuddy, A. (2012). Your body language may shape who you are [Video]. TED Talks.

Crego, A., Carrillo-Diaz, M., Armfield, J. M., & Romero, M. (2016). Stress and academic performance in dental students: the role of coping strategies and examination‐related self‐efficacy. Journal of dental education, 80(2), 165-172.

What strategies do you employ to help reduce exam stress in your students? Have you asked for feedback on the effectiveness of these strategies from a student point of view?

The author of this article is encouraging students to celebrate both their successes and challenges. Think about your own students: are they fearful of making mistakes, or do they see them as opportunities to learn?