Exam Stress

Every May and June thousands of secondary school and university students face a series of exams which are scheduled closely together. This can lead to great stress for students – and those who live with them.

Stress can be defined as the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or demands placed on them. It is a subjective response that varies from person to person. Prolonged stress can lead to both mental and physical illness.

Pressure and stress are quite different. Pressure can be positive and useful in prompting us to complete deadlines or avoid danger. But prolonged pressure can turn negative, and depending how the individual perceives it and reacts to it, can lead to the development of stress.

Exam stress is a natural reaction to too much pressure and can come from several sources including:

  • students themselves

  • comparisons with others

  • wanting to reach ambitious goals

  • other family members

  • peers or teachers

Symptoms of stress

Some people feel pressure and develop stress symptoms more readily than others. When faced with increased pressure the body can go into a ‘fight or flight’ response releasing increased amounts of adrenalin. This can lead to such symptoms as:

  • Feeling cranky and irritable

  • Feeling inadequate, negative self talk, blaming

  • Problems sleeping or not wanting to wake up

  • Strongly beating heart, sweating

  • Chest pains, nausea, trembling

  • Habits such as nail biting and fidgeting

  • Indecisiveness, going blank, confusion

  • Losing touch with friends.

Factors influencing how much exam stress someone feels?

Study Habits

Exam stress is often influenced by the amount of preparation and planning a student has put into studying towards an exam and how well they feel they know the material they are to be tested on.

At risk groups of students for feeling the affects of exam stress include those who expect to cover everything perfectly, those who are not motivated to try to learn or prepare for an exam, and those who are struggling to understand the work.


Motivation plays an important role in learning and studying. The type of motivation an individual has will influence how much they study and how much exam pressure they feel.

Students with intrinsic motivation are inspired by the rewards that come from the activity itself. This could be the love of playing an instrument, interest in learning how the human body works or the magic of how numbers work. In this case, increased focus or study at exam time is part of the interest in the subject itself.

These students are likely to attribute their educational results to internal factors they can control and play an active role in determining their outcome. They are also interested in learning about and understanding a topic, not just relying on rote learning for an exam.

Students with extrinsic motivation are motivated by external things. For example, by a teacher, a parent, or a particular goal. Sometimes rewards such as money or praise are also used as extrinsic motivators.

It is often harder for students motivated by extrinsic factors to stay focused at exam time as they may have less real interest in the topic and so they less motivated and revision is more of a challenge.

Beliefs about ability and control

Exam stress can vary depending on a student’s beliefs about the nature of their academic ability and their perceptions of control when approaching exams.

If a student believes that their ability is fixed and cannot change they may feel a lack of control over exams and be unable to cope with additional demands. This can lead to:

  • unproductive studying

  • less persistence

  • decreased effort when study becomes harder or greater in quantity

  • avoidance of the challenge

However, if a student believes their ability can be increased with effort and planning, they often feel more in control because they can develop it to match the demands in front of them. This leads to more effective preparation, including:

  • putting in more effort,

  • being better organised

  • planning more and showing persistence when study demands increase

How does test anxiety impact on students?

Students can experience high or low test anxiety when preparing for, and undertaking exams. Those

with high test anxiety are more likely to be preoccupied and dissatisfied with themselves. This can cause negative self-talk which is distracting and interferes with study performance.

As students enter the testing situation those with high and low test anxiety often have some of the same body responses, for example clammy hands or stomach butterflies. However, once the exam or test is on its way in most cases these effects will disappear.

Treatment for test anxiety

Methods to help decrease test anxiety fall into three categories and are especially successful when used with each other. These are:

  • study skills

  • cognitive procedures

  • emotional treatments

Study skills

Nothing helps students as much as good study skills and habits, including:

  • memorising

  • making a summaries and précis

  • rehearsing work with a friend

  • studying with a definite goal or task in mind

  • taking time to relax or have a snack

Cognitive work

Cognitive training assists a person to imagine being calm and steady in a test situation. This helps to reduce their anxious responses when it comes time to sit the exam.

Emotional treatment

Self-controlled relaxation and desensitisation treatments can be used to decrease emotional/physiological responses to exam stress. Students learn to use the onset of anxiety as a cue to remind them to relax instead of leaving or letting their mind close down. Students are often taught to say a cue word such as ‘calm’ each time they breathe out. Often, repetition of this cue word brings relaxation and relieves anxiety.

What can parents and carers do?

Parents or carers should be as supportive and tolerant as possible if their child is experiencing exam stress. Reassure them that there are more important things in life and that this is only part of the story. Let your child know you will help them no matter what and, although naturally you want them to do well, you will not think any less of them if these particular exams don’t work out. It is also a time for other family members to be a bit more understanding and tolerant than they might usually be.

Below, is a list of study, practical and relaxation ideas that you might find helpful in managing exam stress.

Study and learning habits

Establishing effective study and learning habits can help to reduce stress on exam students:

  • they should have an uncluttered table where they can work undisturbed.

  • Know exactly what the test involves – are there past test papers to practice on?

  • Ask the teacher for clarity if unsure of something or if feeling confused

  • Make ‘mind maps’ to collect ideas and summarise thoughts

  • Prepare a study schedule early on to develop a clear, realistic plan of what is to covered in each study session. Break it down into small chunks.

  • Take short breaks and move around in between each part of the study session.

  • Other family members can help sometimes by being prepared to listen or practise with the student, or by doing errants such as collecting the pens and writing pads etc.

Practical ideas to help students cope with exam stress

  • Stick to a routine of going to bed at a reasonable time, eating regularly and making time to have fun and exercise

  • Cut down on coffee or any other stimulants, as these can increase agitation. Drink lots of water instead

  • Take time out when eating, rather than carrying on with study

  • Eat fresh fruit, veggies, cereals, grains, nuts and protein – they are all good for the brain and blood sugar levels.

  • Eat when hungry. This keeps blood sugar and hydration levels steady

  • Avoid junk food if possible because it will bring a sudden sugar high and then fall away quickly leaving a person feeling tired

  • Parents try not to nag as they may be feeling a lot of pressure already. It helps to stay calm and offer support – perhaps offer a cup of tea occasionally or record their favourite TV program to watch later

Relaxation ideas to help cope with exam stress

  • Relax before going to bed after concentrating for long periods of time. Activities such as reading a book or chatting to a friend may help them unwind and sleep better

  • Go out for a walk, run or to do some other exercise you enjoy

  • Relaxation techniques can be very effective. Put on some gentle music, lie down, close your eyes and breathe deeply while visualising a calming scene such as a deserted beach

  • Visualise success – this can really help with self-confidence

Thoughts for exam day

Students should:

  • Organise and pack everything that they need to take into the exam, the night before

  • Avoid people who may agitate or make them more anxious before the test

  • Take time to slow their breathing and relax when they first sit down

  • Read through the paper, underlining key words and instructions. Work out how long they have for each question or section

  • Watch out for the wording of the questions – make sure that they understand and address what the question is really asking

  • Answer the questions they find easiest first, then as they relax more move onto the other ones (by then their mind has relaxed and they are likely to find the work easier)

  • Re-read answers if possible and make any necessary changes – correct spelling, check workings.

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