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How educators can help learners turn exam stress into academic success

Rea Gill Rea Gill Mental Fitness Research Assistant at Fika

As spring rolls around, it brings changes such as more sunlight and longer days; but alongside this, exam season looms. Exam season is often associated with feelings of high stress and anxiety, and learners struggle with knowing what to do to combat this. This may in turn affect their academic performance, engagement, and longer-term retention.  

Being able to support learners through exam season can often be difficult, as each individual has different needs and concerns around stress management and wellbeing. A one-size-fits-all offering, like signposting a variety of wellbeing resources, may come across as repetitive or not bespoke enough for these individual needs. So instead, learners push through the stress and await summer, when exam season is behind them. 

However, this can mean that learners don’t develop effective stress management skills or strategies for balancing high workloads, which leads to underperformance. Or alternatively, they may achieve high grades, but burn themselves out in the process. 

This cycle can then make providing support around stress even more difficult, as there’s no majority group of learners who are at higher risk of stress, nor one ‘golden rule’ for beating this stress. 

Trying to beat stress 

It is a widely known fact that low or acute levels of stress are necessary to perform well in tasks or exams and can enhance memory and attention. However, stress becomes a serious issue when it is prolonged or chronic.  

Research shows that the higher students’ mental distress is before exams, the higher their stress levels remain throughout the exam period and directly afterwards. This chronic stress is associated with poorer academic performance, particularly in reading, maths and science subjects. Furthermore, this relationship between stress and academic performance impacts student engagement, with high-stress, low-performing students the most likely to disengage with their education.  

We know from research that student engagement is one of the key drivers of retention and progression to further study, benefiting employability and long-term career success. 

Is the solution simply helping students to be more prepared for exams? 

Not quite – a survey of 540,000 students carried out across 72 countries found that 55% of students feel anxiety around exams, even when ‘well prepared’. That’s not to say exam preparation is not important – because it remains an important factor in learner engagement in the build up to exams and learners’ revision strategies. But it does highlight the glaring problem of the effects of exam stress on learners’ academic performance and wellbeing. 

So, how do we deal with this? Stress can’t simply be removed with a magic wand – but learners can be taught tools and techniques to perceive it more positively. 

Turning exam stress into academic success 

The answer is to support students with turning exam stress into academic success through encouraging the conversion of negative energy into positive outcomes. This can be done by bringing a learner’s focus away from uncontrollable things and the excessive demands placed on them and instead focusing on the resources and skills they have available to them, such as recognising their strengths and focusing on the things they can control. 

Reframing challenges as opportunities means identifying the stress, accepting it, and channeling that stressful energy into things that can be controlled, such as making ‘don’t do’ lists, time blocking, and practicing gratitude. Using this stress as motivation and drive can help to achieve the things learners want, by utilising skills and techniques that they can control.  

In the context of exam stress, it means guiding learners and providing resources that allow them to do these things, as they may not know where to start with it all. Research has shown that when a stress reframing intervention has been put into place for learners – as opposed to just being given stress management information – not only are their perceived stress levels significantly lower, but they’re also more likely to support others with challenging negative thoughts and sharing stress management strategies. 

Building a mental fitness foundation 

As part of a Foundation Year of Mental Fitness, Fika and NCFE have partnered to deliver an evidence-based intervention in mental fitness to 69 FE colleges across the UK. The mental fitness curriculum comprises 7 skills trained at key times of the academic year: connection, confidence, motivation, positivity, stress, focus and meaning.

After initially training the connection and confidence skills to facilitate a positive return to face-to-face learning, stress management was identified as the ideal skill to focus on around the spring term and exam season. To date, 20,998 FE learners have completed over 43,400 confidence exercises, equating to 3,624 hours of learning. 

One user said: “I'd never even considered that practising gratitude could reduce my stress, but when I tried it out it actually worked. It was really eye-opening for me.” 

By spending as little as five minutes a day on developing techniques such as cognitive reframing or practising gratitude, learners are equipped with the stress management skills necessary to take exam season head-on, helping to transform their exam stress into academic success. 

Read more information about the NCFE and Fika partnership.

Fritz, J., Stochl, J., Kievit, R. A., Van Harmelen, A. L., & Wilkinson, P. O. (2021). Tracking Stress, Mental Health, and Resilience Factors in Medical Students Before, During, and After a Stress-Inducing Exam Period: Protocol and Proof-of-Principle Analyses for the RESIST Cohort Study. JMIR Formative Research, 5(6), e20128. 

Hughes, J. S., Gourley, M. K., Madson, L., & Blanc, K. L. (2011). Stress and coping activity: Reframing negative thoughts. Teaching of Psychology, 38(1), 36-39. 

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2017). PISA 2015 Results (Volume III). Paris, France. 

Pascoe, M. C., Hetrick, S. E., & Parker, A. G. (2020). The impact of stress on students in secondary school and higher education. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 25(1), 104-112. 

Schlenker, B. R., Schlenker, P. A., & Schlenker, K. A. (2013). Antecedents of academic engagement and the implications for college grades. Learning and Individual Differences, 27, 75-81. 

Stress can’t simply be removed with a magic wand – but learners can be taught tools and techniques to perceive it more positively.

Rea Gill, Mental Fitness Research Assistant at Fika
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