Exam stress bothers many of our students. Sadly, it hinders students from lower socio-economic status (SES) families even more.
Can we break this cycle somehow?
Reducing Exam Stress: Two Approaches
Christopher Rozek tried a combination of strategies to help lower-SES science students manage exam stress.
This research stands out for a number of reasons: in particular, it included a large sample (almost 1200 students). And, it took place in a school, not a psychology lab. That is, his results apply to the “real world,” not just a hermetically sealed research space.
Rozek worked with students taking a 9th grade biology class. Before they took the two exams in the course, Rozek had students write for ten minutes.
One group spent their ten minutes writing about their current thoughts and feelings. This approach lets students “dump” their anxiety, and has been effective in earlier studies. (By the way: this earlier research is controversial. I’ve written about that controversy here.)
Another group read a brief article showing that the right amount of stress can enhance performance. This reading, and the writing they did about it, helps students “reappraise” the stress they feel.
A third group did shortened versions of both “dumping” and “reappraising” exercises.
And the control group read and wrote about the importance of ignoring and suppressing negative/stressful emotions.
So, did the “dump” strategy or the “reappraise” strategy help?
Indeed, they both did.
For example, Rozek and Co. measured the effect these strategies (alone or together) had on the exam-score gap between high- and low-SES students.
The result? They cut the gap by 29%.
Rozek also tracked course failure. Among low-SES students, these strategies cut the failure rate by 50%.
(In the control group, 36% of the low SES students failed the class; in the other three groups, that rate fell to 18%. Of course, 18% is high — but it’s dramatically lower than 36%.)
In his final measure, Rozek found that — after these interventions — low SES-students evaluated their stress much more like the high SES-students. The gap between these ratings fell…by 81%.
All this progress from a 10 minute writing exercise.
Classroom Guidance to Reduce Exam Stress
If you’ve got students who are likely to feel higher levels of anxiety before a test, you might adapt either (or both) of these strategies for your students.
The best way to make these strategies work will vary depending on your students’ age and academic experience.
You might start by reviewing Rozek’s research — click the link above, and look for the “Procedure” section on page 5. From there, use your teacherly wisdom to make those procedures fit your students, your classroom, and you.