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How to talk to your students about exam anxiety

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: A levels and GCSEs, Exams

Test anxiety blog series: 4

Authors: Tamsin McCaldin and Professor Kevin Woods

In this blog, we offer strategies which teachers might find useful to help reduce their students’ experiences of exam anxiety. While some examples might seem obvious, research reminds us that these approaches can be successful with students – many of whom will be encountering high stakes exams for the first time and may lack experience of dealing with these feelings.

Choose motivation strategies carefully

Teachers sometimes point out negative consequences in order to motivate distracted or disengaged students. They might say that if students do not concentrate, they will fail to achieve their target grades, or not get into the college or university they want.

Research shows that these ‘fear appeals’ can be motivational if students find the work they are doing important and they have a strong belief in their own ability. However, when students do not have a strong belief in their own ability then fear appeals are likely to have a negative effect on motivation and can increase students’ anxiety. Unless you know that a particular student is likely to have a positive reaction to a fear appeal it is better to avoid using this as a motivational strategy. Instead, it is better to point out positives, such as the possibility of performing well in the exam as a result of completing homework or revision.

Normalise emotions

Emotions such as stress and anxiety are natural and helpful indicators which communicate to us that there is something in our environment to which we need to respond. It is important that students know that these emotions are normal and there is no right or wrong way to feel. When students describe emotions around exams, try to ‘normalise’ this by listening calmly. Ask for more information and convey empathy by acknowledging their point of view, but avoid reacting too positively or negatively.

Teachers can embed this by talking openly about the sorts of emotions students might face around exams, including stress and anxiety. You might consider discussing your own experiences, if appropriate, or the anonymised experiences of previous students. This can help students to understand that some stress around exams is normal and is not necessarily something which should be overly concerning, or which will have a negative future impact. This can help to reduce the intensity of their emotion and support them to build resilience.

Give specific revision guidance

Students often describe uncertainty around their exam preparation and revision as a big factor in their experience of exam stress. In particular, they report that people often tell them to revise, without first telling them how; what a programme of revision looks like and how to adapt that as exams approach. A student’s lack of certainty over revision planning can lead to them to choose inefficient methods, procrastinate or avoid revision altogether, leading them to feel less prepared and with increased anxiety.

Of course, students need to learn for themselves the revision techniques that work best for them. However, it can be useful if teachers introduce students to a range of different techniques suitable for their subject area. Planning for revision proactively can avoid negative beliefs about their ability to revise and confusion about what revision actually is.

Give students advice on how to succeed

Teachers have often been through the exam process with a number of different classes, and have a wealth of knowledge and experience. For students, this is the first and (usually) only time they will experience a particular set of exams.  When giving students advice, teachers should consider providing evidence from their experience, as this will encourage students to see its relevance to their situation. It also helps students to hear, more generally, that their teacher has done this all before, that every year a group of people sits exams, and that their teacher is aware of what has worked best for them.

Talk about future options

For GCSE and A level students, the exams they are taking are the gateway to another stage in their life: to another stage of education, into training or work. Because of this, uncertainty around the future can be a source of stress for some students. Students experiencing anxiety around their future can often feel that not getting the grades they want will be ‘the end of the world’.

Schools are rightly concerned with encouraging students to achieve their target grades and can present aspirational careers as a source of motivation. However, some students can feel reassured by information about what their options might be if ‘plan A’ doesn’t come to fruition. Giving students a range of realistic information about their possible futures, including options for retakes and alternative paths into further education or careers depending on the grades they achieve, plays down a black-and-white view of ‘passing’ or ‘failing’ the exams. Talking realistically about futures allows students to concentrate on their exam efforts knowing that, whatever the outcome, the exams will not be ‘the end of the world’.

Encouraging your students to talk about their emotions as they approach their exams and helping them to see that their responses are normal can help them manage any anxiety they may be experiencing in a more positive way.

Contributors to this blog series are:

Professor Kevin Woods (blog series co-ordinator)

Dr Cathy Atkinson

Kerry-Ann Brown

Dr Rob Buck

Dr Deborah Flitcroft

Dr Jo Greenwood

Amanda Hipkiss

Dr Abi James

Tamsin McCaldin

David Soares

We are a group of researchers and practitioners working at, or in partnership with, The University of Manchester Institute of Education. We have professional backgrounds as school teachers and/ or educational psychologists working in secondary, primary and special schools. Our research and professional practice covers a range of learning and well-being issues, including those relating to school examinations and tests, such as examination stress, test anxiety, and access arrangements. We are pleased to be working with Ofqual to bring our understanding of these issues to a wider audience through a series of blogs to be published over the coming weeks. These blogs are written for teachers, parents, examinations officers, and older students. We hope you find them informative and helpful.

Recent projects:

Buck, R. (2018). An investigation of attentional bias in test anxiety. Manchester Institute of Education, The University of Manchester

Flitcroft & Woods (2014). The language Key Stage 4 teachers use prior to high stake exams and how this can be adapted to suit their students. DfE ITEP-funded through The University of Manchester.

Hipkiss, A. (2014). Management of GCSE access arrangements: utilizing student feedback and observational data. ESRC-funded CASE project through the North West Doctoral Training Partnership (NWDTP).

McCaldin, T. (2015). GCSE student experience across Key Stage 4. ESRC-funded through the North West Doctoral Training Partnership.

Some recent publications:

Buck, R. (2016). An ethical approach to anxiety manipulation in school-based research. Psychology of Education Review, 40(2), 10-16.

Atkinson, C., Thomas, G., Goodhall, N., Barker, L. Healey, I., Wilkinson, L. & Ogunmyiwa, J. (2019) Developing a student-led school mental health strategy. Pastoral Care in Education. doi: 10.1080/02643944.2019.1570545

Flitcroft, D., & Woods, K. (2018). What does research tell high school teachers about student motivation for test performance? Pastoral Care in Education, 36(2), 112-125.

Flitcroft, D., Woods, K., & Putwain (2017). Developing practice in preparing students for high-stakes examinations in English and Mathematics. Educational and Child Psychology, 34(3), 7-19.

Woods, K., James, A., & Hipkiss, A. (2018). Best practice in access arrangements made for England’s General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSEs): Where are we 10 years on? British Journal of Special Education, 45(3), 236-255.

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  1. Comment by Dave posted on

    A really nice article which helps identify how schools can help support students in their exams. However, it is a shame that the reference "Schools are rightly concerned with encouraging students to achieve their target grades..." is included as this can be read as normalising the fallacy that prior performance can be used to predict a target grade for an individual student. It would perhaps have been better to state that schools should encourage students to reach their full potential.
    Sorry to be picky about an otherwise good article but it feels important that Ofqual do not inadvertently encourage poor practice in schools.

  2. Comment by Nithya posted on

    wonderful blog. Students these days have to deal with a lot of pressure. As rightly said the exam fear factor must be used in an appropriate manner. Achieving good grades in the exam is essential but is not the only deciding factor for a better future. The school could play a boosting role by giving them a view of where they stand and what they could focus.