‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine!' - a look at exam anxiety

A blog by student engagement coaches Sarah Stokes and Georgina Norris at Cambridge Regional College on exam anxiety.

Students are taking exams for the first time in two years and it is unsurprising that this has led to increased feelings of stress. As we all know, feeling nervous is a very natural response to the prospect of exams and a little bit of stress can help students focus on the day. However, for some students, this experience can be particularly challenging and can lead to severe anxiety and distress. As Maths Engagement Coaches at Cambridge Regional College, we have acted as a separate body to the maths team this year, which has allowed us to gain a unique insight into the student experience during this time.

It is important to highlight that feelings of stress and anxiety are not always visible and, just because students may appear calm on the surface, internal struggle may still exist. However, common signs in the run up to exams include: a decline in engagement and/or attendance, use of self-depreciating language and changes in mood – becoming quieter or more disruptive than usual.

What have we done at Cambridge Regional College to support exam anxious students?

Whilst not a new concept, exam anxiety has created a significant barrier to engagement this year following the pandemic. Many students are not used to the exam environment and do not have positive exam experiences underneath their belt.

We have made a conscious effort not to brush off students concerns by using the phrase ‘don’t worry you’ll be fine’. Whilst positive in its intentions, we have been told by students that this can sometimes make them feel like their feelings are not being taken seriously (this is, of course, the last thing we want to do!). Instead, we asked questions which encourage the student to reflect: ‘what could we do to make you feel more prepared?’ and ‘is there anything in particular about the exam you are worried about?’

At Cambridge, we have been supporting learners who are finding the exam period particularly stressful by filling out personalised exam management plans and offering exam preparation drop ins where we aim to encourage positive thinking. In these sessions we show students anxiety management techniques such as breathing exercises, as well as offering a welcoming and friendly environment for revision.

What can teachers do to support students who might be experiencing exam anxiety?

  • We believe that it is important for maths teachers to encourage open conversation in class about exam anxiety. This gives an opportunity to validate students’ feelings and for staff to offer personal exam experiences that students might be able to relate to.
  • Teachers can highlight how far learners have come since the start of the year and remind them of the progress they have made. This helps shift the learners’ focus to something positive about themselves as opposed to their feelings about the exam.
  • Reminding students that their exam results are not related to their self-worth – sitting an exam is an achievement in itself and means that they are one step closer to where they want to be.

We know that students who experience exam anxiety struggle with intense feelings of stress and dread that is often all-consuming. This year we have found that creating a safe and supportive culture where students can talk openly about their feelings can help make a difference to those who need it the most.

Sarah Stokes – Student Engagement Coach at Cambridge Regional College

Georgina Norris – Student Engagement Coach at Cambridge Regional College

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