Teacher Perspective: How to Recognize and Help Students With Exam Stress and Anxiety

by Julia McDonald on 21 Jan, 2022

Welcome to January, the twilight zone of semestered schools: a time of wrap-up, review, and last-minute student conferences. We know that the weeks leading up to and during exam season can be challenging for both teachers and students, especially since many students have less experience writing final exams due to the pandemic. 




That’s why we decided to interview Lisa Craveiro, a high school English teacher in York Region Ontario. Thanks to her 15 years of teaching experience and her involvement in spearheading mental health initiatives in her school, Lisa has valuable insights to offer teachers and students. Read on to discover some test-prep strategies you can try or share with your students, as well as resources for supporting their mental health during exam season.



Noticing Student Stress


Question: What are some common signs of stress that your students display?


Lisa: A common sign of stress that my students display is an inability to focus. For example, I can tell when students have a test for a different subject coming up because they will have their books and materials for their other class open. [...] Alternatively, when they arrive in English I often note a flurry of conversation around a test they may have just written or received the mark back for. In these instances, they aren’t focussed at all (or barely) on what I may be attempting to cover in English class. Since their minds are elsewhere, I feel that there needs to be time spent on calming them down or on allowing them a few minutes to share.



Test-prep Tips



When something is super overwhelming for a student, it is better for them to begin with a quick review of the material they are already semi-comfortable or confident with. After that, they can move on to the unit or material they aren’t as familiar with, with more confidence. 

-Lisa Craveiro, High School English Teacher



Question: What are some practical studying and test-taking tips you know that have helped your students? 


Lisa: Some strategies that have helped my students include regular review of core concepts, teacher feedback and mock test/exam practice.  

As a class, I feel it is extremely beneficial to the students to immediately review completed tests and go through the answers as a group. This allows students to have a better understanding of the material and utilize their previous tests as a study tool for their future work or exam. Other helpful strategies would include: small study groups, peer editing sessions, attempting to teach others the study material, finding creative ways to show knowledge such as through sketch notes, and considering personal connections and the connections that can be made between texts and the modern day.  



Question: Would you say that conducting a class review period increases the students’ confidence in themselves and helps them to feel confident in the material that they’ve read?


Lisa: It certainly does. Because in a more informal way, they can either gain confidence in what they do know [...] or they can realize what they don't know, and what they need to reread. [...] A class review period is a guided studying period; it’s a more informal way of gauging what students know, which gives them a boost of confidence. They may also realize what they need to review or reread. Reviewing aloud together allows for a situation where students can build on one another’s thinking and it allows me to jump in with additional prompts or redirections as needed.  



Question: Say you have a student who’s feeling overwhelmed and they don’t know where to start. What is a tip or encouragement you would give them to help them get started?


Lisa: In order to help them get started, I need to first get a sense of where they are at. I’ll confer with the student to gauge their specific individual needs. Once I have a better understanding of why the student is overwhelmed then I can make specific recommendations for them. Ultimately I will encourage them to focus on what they do know and not to cram in what they have not yet covered at the last minute.



Question: Let’s say it isn’t possible for you to have that individual conference with your students or other teachers aren’t offering that. What then would you say to a student to encourage them?


Lisa: I would still suggest for them to start with what they know. When something is super overwhelming for a student, it is better for them to begin with a quick review of the material they are already semi-comfortable or confident with. After that, they can move on to the unit or material they aren’t as familiar with, with more confidence.  



Managing Student Stress



In my opinion, it’s best to teach our kids healthy coping strategies as early as possible because the “wait-and-see” approach may not work for all children.

-Lisa Craveiro, High School English Teacher



Question: We've talked about a couple of tips that you would suggest, but specifically from a mental health point of view, are there any techniques or practices that you've learned and implemented in your classroom to help your students manage their stress in general, but especially leading up to and during the exam week?


Lisa: Throughout the semester, I will try and address students’ overall mental wellness by getting to know them and the class dynamic. I like to do regular check-ins, and whoever feels comfortable sharing aloud will share aloud. Even for the students who don’t feel comfortable sharing aloud, they will still benefit from listening to their peers and they may be more comfortable to chime in with their own experiences. I think it's very important to make the students feel as though they’re heard and seen. If I notice that the energy in the room is lower, or they're anxious, or they're just overwhelmed, in general, never mind with exams, then [...] we might just listen to a guided meditation. I've also played funny clips, you know, some funny videos or whatnot. And as a class, even just laughing together, that will release tension.



Question: So I know you created an annual mental health summit for both students and parents in your school district involving a variety of guest speakers and organizations. Can you tell us more about why you started this initiative and the types of classes and speakers you specifically wanted to offer to students?  


Lisa:  A friend and former colleague and I had been discussing what we'd noted of late with our students; even prior to the pandemic there seemed to be an overall uptick in mental health challenges. We thought that this needed to be addressed on a bigger scale than simply something that comes up, for example, in their phys ed curriculum. Given my day-to-day interactions with students in my English class, I’ve learned that I can't teach the curriculum if the students themselves are not in a good place. 

Our approach to increasing the conversation around mental health and attempting to break the stigma around it began with our school becoming a Jack.org Chapter. Through Jack.org we received a lot of resources to begin the conversation and it also allowed us access to Jack.org speakers. That started a good positive momentum at school, but we didn't want to just be a Jack.org Chapter, we also wanted to host our own Mental Health Summits for students and parents in order to extend our reach. For the student summits, we invited guest speakers and community mental health advocates and organizational representatives for talks and workshops. Likewise, we offered speakers and a panel discussion for parents to address how to begin having these important conversations with their children. These guest speakers, workshops, and panel discussions were really well received by both the students and parents alike and there were plans to continue this positive movement.   



Question: With everything we discussed, from practical exam prep and just general practices that you implement to support student mental health, do you have any advice that you would give to other teachers or parents?


Lisa: My advice to parents would be to not wait until things are dire to intervene. If/when you feel that your child is in need of additional support, be it psychological or otherwise, start looking into the available resources. In my opinion, it’s best to teach our kids healthy coping strategies as early as possible because the “wait-and-see” approach may not work for all children.  

That's the best advice because I've seen it with my own students and I've experienced it myself too. Many of us grow up and wonder, “Is there something wrong with me?” And we don't talk about it out loud. It's only when you do that you realize, “Hey, actually, I'm not so different. These struggles are not all that different.” But generally, [as] adolescents, we're very self-conscious [...] and we don't yet have a broader understanding and acceptance of ourselves. And that self-knowledge is really key.





Interested in supporting your students’ mental health this exam season or discovering some resources you can use next semester? Check out the ChatterHigh online learning resources page for educators here. Resources include a Jack.org module, the national Mental Health and Wellness module, and more!

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