What is Exam Stress?
Exam stress is a feeling of pressure experienced by students in the run up to exams as well as during the exam period. The wait for exam results can also create anxiety as students wait to find out if they have done as well as they and others expected.
Exam stress is very common; a certain level of stress can be a good thing, helping students to focus during an important period. However high levels of stress over prolonged periods are not helpful and can have a negative impact on exam performance as well as causing associated mental health problems.
Why does it happen?
- Lack of control - exams bring a level of uncertainty and this can feel uncomfortable.
- A lot to learn - some types of exams such as GCSE and A levels rely on learning and recalling large amounts of information. This level of recall can be a challenge for some students.
- High stakes - the results of exams are often the gateway to the next stage of education or route into work.
Supporting students during the exam period
Look out for when students are struggling. Here are some common signs and symptoms:
- Lack of sleep
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty concentrating
- Physical symptoms such as feeling sick/ headaches/ stomach aches
- Avoiding things, they usually do or enjoy
- Negative thinking
- Appearing withdrawn / missing lessons
Long-term help for students involves creating a school environment and atmosphere that values a wide range of achievements
- Develop an ethos that values and celebrates a wide range of achievements. This can help students understand that exams are not the only measure of success.
- Help students develop resilience with policies and practice that develop self-esteem and supportive relationships.
- Be vigilant to the needs of certain groups. Young carers and those with chronic health conditions may have commitments out of school time that make attending extra revision or support sessions very difficult. Talk to students and find out what is helpful to them.
- Provide information and advice to parents and carers so they are aware of the signs and possible effects of exam stress.
- Create opportunities for parents and carers to share any concerns they might have about their child. Some students may find it difficult to talk directly to school staff about their concerns and feelings.
Offer information and practical advice to students, parents and carers during the exam period
- Perspective. Help students to understand that though exams feel like the most important thing right now, it will not always feel this way.
- Sleep. Explain to students that getting enough sleep can make a huge difference. Establishing a good nighttime routine during the revision period and exam time will help. (Taking time to relax before going to bed, an hour screen free time before bedtime and aiming for 8-10 hours sleep a night.)
- Nourishment. A balanced diet and adequate hydration are important for staying physically healthy, this is also vital for concentrating and retaining information. Remember that some students may not have access to a healthy diet.
- Physical Activity & Relaxation. Encourage physical activity; this can bring positive mood changes. Relaxing and doing something enjoyable can enhance mood and help calm the mind. Mindfulness techniques can also help with feelings of stress and anxiety.
- Revision strategies. Start developing study skills and revision techniques early on, so students are familiar with a variety of strategies before the exam period begins. Help students find what works best for them.
Managing results day
It’s only natural for young people to feel nervous about exam results. This has always been true, however, since the pandemic young people have had to deal with uncertainty about how ‘exams’ would work for them. This year many young people took their first national exams under traditional exam conditions despite missing periods of school due to self-isolation. So, like last year, many young people will be worried about how they have done and what the results will mean for their future.
Here are some key things that may help young people prepare:
- Acknowledge it has been a tough year and everyone has done well to get to the end of it.
- Voice that it is OK to feel nervous, we often feel nervous when we do not have control. Once the results are out things will feel better because decisions can be made even if the results are not exactly what was hoped for.
- Encourage young people to talk about how they are feeling. This may be to a parent, a trusted adult, or a good friend.
- Make it clear that getting results is a point in time and things will move on whatever the outcome.
- Talk to students about the positives that can come out of dealing with the unexpected, be that doing better than expected or not getting the results they need. Give some examples of positive experiences of previous students.
- Give students information about helplines such as Childline they can use if they are feeling unable to cope leading up to results day or on or after the day.
Tips for results day:
- Since the pandemic results have been collected in a range of ways. Some schools sent results out electronically, some schools opened for collection in person and others did a mix of the two. Make sure students know what their options are so they can decide what will work best for them.
- Most schools have key staff on hand to help students once they have received their exam results. The support will range from congratulations to supporting those who may be disappointed. It will also include helping students understand what the results mean for their next steps. This might include checking they have the required grades for 6th form, College, or University.
- Support for students who may feel their results are not reflective of how they did in the exam is really important. Information, advice and guidance on the appeals system is really important.
- Some young people may be worried about sharing their results with parents/carers. For some the support of a staff member may help.
Advice and support for students
Childline - Practical advice and tips for the exam day and video clips of young people talking about revision and exams and mental health.
Student Mind - Advice on dealing with exam stress from the student mental health charity,
Place2be- Navigating exam season-free resources
Advice for parents
NHS - Information and advice.
Young Minds - Information and advice for parents.