Supporting students with exam stress

Students of all ages can experience stress about exams or important assessments. This article shares ways to prepare students for exams with the aim of minimising and managing stress.  

student feeling stressed while studying


Last year, the NSPCC reported a 10% increase in counselling sessions about exam stress since the pandemic.   

Students can experience stress and anxiety in the lead-up to an exam, during the exam itself, while awaiting results, or continuously throughout this period. While some students may openly display signs of stress and anxiety and talk about it, others might conceal their feelings. Some students might not even realise they are experiencing exam stress.  

Regardless of their awareness, all students can benefit from learning practical management tools and techniques. Some students might also benefit from understanding what happens to their bodies and brains when stressed. This knowledge helps them cope with immediate pressures and equips them with valuable skills for future challenges. 


Normalise conversations about stress and anxiety 

Normalising general conversations about stress, anxiety, and mental health within the learning environment is an important step as it helps students feel comfortable and supported to express their concerns and feelings. 

One effective way to initiate this dialogue is to invite a speaker from a mental health charity, such as Mind UK, or a colleague with professional experience in this area. Expert-led discussions can give students valuable insights and reassure them that their feelings are valid and understood. 

Another approach to encouraging ongoing discussion about stress is to dedicate a corner of your classroom to positive mental health. This “Wellbeing Zone” could offer resources about managing anxiety, stress-busting tips, and contact information for internal and external support services. It might include calming activities or materials, such as stress balls, puzzles, or soothing visuals.   

Encouraging student-led initiatives can also be impactful. Students could research methods to reduce stress (in this case, specifically exam stress) and create content like blog articles, videos, or audio podcasts to share their findings.   


Help students understand what stress is   

Understanding that not all stress is negative but rather a biological response to perceived threats can be helpful for some students. This knowledge helps them recognise and manage stress more effectively. Tailor this approach to meet your students' needs.  

If you or a colleague have the knowledge and experience to teach students about the physiological stress response, you can help students to:  

  • Notice their own physical and emotional stress indicators, such as mood shifts, changes in sleep patterns, or physical symptoms like headaches. 
  • Develop personal coping strategies, from physical activities and mindfulness to structured problem-solving techniques. 


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Focus on how far students have come and encourage a growth mindset 

Celebrating progress, no matter how small, can significantly boost student morale and promote a growth mindset. Remind students regularly of their achievements and the obstacles they've overcome, reinforcing the belief that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. 

Encourage students to see challenges as opportunities for growth rather than threats to their self-esteem. Teach them to embrace mistakes as part of the learning process and encourage them to set goals that stretch their capabilities while being achievable. 

Integrating growth mindset principles into daily interactions can help students develop resilience and adaptability, essential for managing stress and succeeding in exams and beyond. 


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Prepare for exams in advance 

Finally, take practical steps to ensure students know everything they need about upcoming exams and assessments to be fully prepared. 

Revising for exams is a skill that requires development over time; support your students with planning their approach, as well as using specific strategies such as flashcards and knowledge organisers. Model answers can be helpful to prepare students if your examining body allows these to be shared. If students do not have a quiet space at home suitable for revision, ensure they can access the library.  

Prepare students for exams with mocks and ensure the environment and process are as close as possible to the real thing. Don’t just do one mock; do as many as is reasonable. Don’t just focus on doing what it takes to pass the exam; ensure your students understand the whole process: before, during, and after. Online exams require additional preparation and practice if students are required to use an unfamiliar website or exam portal.   

If you know you have particular students struggling with exam anxiety, notify your exam team and work with them to find appropriate support mechanisms. 

Finally, tutor support should be available before and after the exam – it can make such a difference to the student experience.  


Further reading:  


Martine Ellis (FSET ATS) is a writer, speaker, and trainer specialising in professional development and wellbeing-driven productivity.