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

Dr Alistair Bailie

Seven tips to beat exam stress

How can you best support students who are stressed out at the prospect of exams? Clinical psychologist Dr Alistair Bailie suggests seven strategies to share. 

For students of any age, there can be considerable stress when it comes to exams. Their implications for study, jobs, and life progress can increase nerves. If your pupils are struggling due to upcoming exams, sharing these seven tips can make a profound difference to reduce stress. 

1. Focus on the fundamentals

For many students, there's a temptation to focus on the smaller aspects of revision and exam performance. It can be easy to overlook the things that form the foundational pillars of wellness: sleep, nutrition, hydration, exercise, and connection.

Remind your pupils that someone with poorer sleep, a less healthy diet, who hasn’t moved much recently, or seen their friends, is fighting an uphill battle to perform as well as someone who addresses these areas.

Get your students to focus on what they can control

Encourage them to spend time considering each of these factors and how they can be improved consistently. Not only will this allow your students to manage stress better, but it’ll ensure that their learning time is efficient and their exam performance is optimal.

2. Embrace the differences

Emphasise to your students that whilst everyone may be facing the same task during an exam, all students are different. How a person approaches a task is a reflection of individuality. It’s something to be embraced.

The truth is that people work, learn, and perform differently

I used to feel really disheartened to hear that friends had spent hours revising when I hadn’t managed the same. I would unfavourably compare myself to my peers and think that I had never done enough.

The truth is that people work, learn, and perform differently. Some will be able to spend long periods of time with sustained attention and focus, others less so.

Tell your students to avoid trying to keep up with the same study routine as their peers. They need to understand the conditions they best learn under. Embracing their individuality will be far more beneficial and reduce stress.

3. Preparation of inner and outer spaces

Exams are loaded with an emphasis on outcomes. Ultimately neither teacher nor pupil is in control of the outcome. However, some things can be influenced.

Get your students to focus on what they can control. This means paying attention to factors such as the wellness fundamentals (see tip one), and spending time on preparation.

Remind your students that personal worth isn’t defined by grades

Pupils can control a variety of factors – whether they’re making their revision space organised and distraction-free, or they’re ensuring that they know what they need and when for the exam.

4. Balance

It’s possible to spend endless hours revising or at least looking like you’re revising. Life can become consumed by exams – understandable given their importance, but it can ultimately lead to reduced performance. Once they’ve found the study routine that works for them, your students need to avoid applying it to their lives 24/7.

There will always be some degree of stress with exams, and it’s important that pupils work hard. But it’s necessary to find balance in learning and free time. Engaging in things that provoke a sense of connection, soothing, and fun are a necessity, not a luxury.

These things will look different depending on the student. Some may want to see and speak to friends, others may want to watch some of their favourite TV show or go for a run.

The specifics don’t matter; it’s about having protected time to recharge. Advocate to your pupils for balance in their revision schedules.

5. On the day

Brains are incredible and can do amazing things. However, they can be somewhat temperamental. On the day, students need to do their best to manage their feelings – in order to reduce stress and allow the higher functions of the brain (decision making, logical thinking, recall, planning, etc.) to work well during the exam.

In the hours before the exam, your students should try to focus on breathing techniques, to encourage themselves with supporting mantras, and to participate in some relaxation work.

Prompt your students to talk to themselves in understanding and supportive ways

Advise them to also manage their feelings by arriving with sufficient time to the exam, by not dwelling on things that could go awry, and by avoiding excessive consumption of caffeine and sugar. 

6. ‘My exams don’t define me’

It’s easy to say that exams don’t define someone, but that’s not what it feels like when you’re going through them.

It is true though. Remind your students that personal worth isn’t defined by grades. Pupils are worth so much more than a series of numbers or letters. Not everyone works well within the current educational system – and that is a reflection of the system, not the student.

There are lots of different routes through life, be it further education, training, apprenticeships, and/or employment. Students have many options and have professional guidance to help them navigate the world. Remembering this can reduce a student’s stress about their exams.

7. Self-belief

Yes. I know it sounds cheesy, and it may be difficult to convey this to a student.

Having self-confidence is key when it comes to performing under pressure. Tell your students to back themselves in knowing their capabilities. If they are struggling encourage them to borrow your belief in them.

It’s great to have a supportive crowd of friends, family, and teachers. However, the best confidence boost comes from within. Prompt your students to talk to themselves in understanding and supportive ways – just as they might talk to and motivate their peers.

Self-criticism can be helpful when highlighting certain things to work on, but if a pupil is constantly mentally beating themselves up, it only makes things worse. Ask your class to talk positively to themselves (regardless of how awkward or uncomfortable it may feel to them). It can have a profound impact on their performance, self-worth, and stress. This is also something you can model to them.

Track and support wellbeing

For more on wellbeing and personal development, check out youHQ. Designed by teachers and clinical psychologists, the youHQ wellbeing app for schools intuitively and simply tracks mood and wellbeing.

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