The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Gareth D Morewood

Exam season, stress and anxiety

This time of year is dominated by assessments and examinations, from KS2 SATs through to GCSE and ‘A’ Level exams and beyond. As someone who always struggled with a formal exam as a mechanism of assessment I sympathise with young people who find the model of assessing them challenging. It is only relatively recently that formal written assessments, or exams, have been the primary form of assessment and our understanding of how a 21st Century student manages those pressures are limited.

Exam stress – what the research says

Research has shown that test anxiety can present a significant threat to the well-being of students and increase the likelihood of educational underachievement. Severe anxiety can interfere with students’ ability to perform well in an exam and to recall important subject knowledge.


We have been lucky enough to work with Edge Hill University and AQA in trialling and developing the STEPS (Strategies to Tackle Exam Pressure & Stress) Course which consists of six sessions delivered to GCSE students.

  • Understanding how we think and feel about challenges: this session covers the signs of stress and anxiety, the reasons why students find exams stressful and the effects of stress and anxiety on performance.
  • Making our thoughts work for us: this session explains how feelings and behaviours are linked to our thoughts, how to identify Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATs), and how to challenge NATs and replace them with positive messages.
  • Staying focused and calm during an exam: this is a practical skills-based session that covers the physical symptoms of stress and explains how to combat these symptoms using deep breathing and muscle relaxation techniques.
  • Effective revision and time management: this session touches on overcoming procrastination and ways to prepare for exams, for example by creating revision timetables. It also covers various revision techniques (e.g. active reading).
  • Setting your goals and sticking to them: this is a practical skills-based session which covers getting motivated, using visualisation, and making visualisation work for the individual.
  • Getting it right on exam day: the last session covers emotional and physical wellbeing, and an overview of what has been included in STEPS.


After the trial stages and using the materials with various students, this year we provided a targeted approach for year 10 and 11 students. The sessions were adapted, planned and delivered by our SpLD Specialist Teacher, and Speech and Language Therapist. The combination of perspectives, focusing on learning, language and understanding, combined with the excellent resources allowed for a truly bespoke set of six sessions.

Personalised approach

Some students preferred to simply take the CD home and work through the materials as they were initially designed; however the bespoke approach and support that allowed for individual discussions in the carefully selected groups of 10 students, allowed for unprecedented opportunities to consider the facts and think about how they relate to individual needs and circumstance. Student feedback was extremely positive, which isn’t really surprising, as when, if we didn’t offer this support, would these issues be discussed and considered?

Outcomes and impact

As with anything we do, the impact and outcomes are vital. Our staff conducted pre and post analysis measures for the groups in year 10 and 11. The most dramatic indicator was that out of the responses 50 students indicated that ‘nearly every day’ stress and anxiety had significant impact on their lives across the 15 difference assessment questions; after the six sessions this was stated by only five students. This result, considered along with 45 responses saying they were significantly affected ‘more than half the time’ before and only 22 of them saying the saying they were at the same level after the sessions, provide a combined shift of 95 responses indicating stress and anxiety in the two most severe categories before, compared with 27 after: a significant shift!

More than ‘top tips’

During exam season schools often get sucked into practicalities and specifics, however with careful planning and building in time for sessions discussing and raising awareness, performance will improve. There are lots of materials out there including ‘top tips’. However, this is an area where it is vital individual schools find a package or system that works for them. This year, with my colleagues developing the materials for a more bespoke approach, we did a much better job, as the impact measures demonstrate. So my advice is, don’t expect an ‘off the shelf’ package, but pursue something that can be developed and invest time to put the sessions into an inclusive curriculum offer. This is an area which is massively under-addressed, but I see as an essential part of the Local Offer, which regard to pressures and needs of 21st Century students. We worked closely with Professor Dave Putwain from Edge Hill University on developing this work, his publications will provide lots of additional information.

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