What is it like to experience exam stress? A student perspective (2023)


Test anxiety blog series: 2

Authors: Tamsin McCaldin, Kerry-ann Brown and Dr Jo Greenwood

With recent changes to exams in England, there has been increased media interest into exam stress and what that might mean for students working towards exams. Although it is likely that anyone preparing for and taking exams will experience some stress and anxiety, research has suggested that around 15% of GCSE students may fall into the category of being ‘highly test anxious’ (Putwain & Daly, 2014). For these students, their levels of stress and anxiety are high enough that their well being and exam performance can be negatively affected.

In response to a growing awareness, many articles have been published giving tips and advice on how to manage and cope with exam stress but little focus has been directed towards what it’s like for the students who are actually experiencing exam stress. Here, Jemma and Sami, two GCSE students in Year 11, give an insight into what it’s like for them to experience stress around their exams.

These are real accounts from students. Although only two are presented here, these examples illustrate common experiences of many students. They show the importance of listening to students, to gain the insight needed to provide the right support.

What is it like to experience exam stress? A student perspective (1)

What is exam stress like?

For Sami, feeling stressed is what he associates most with the topic of exams. “The whole time is just a stressful thing,” he says. “All everyone’s talking about is how your exams are really soon and they’re the most important things… it’s like the whole world - it’s just stress.”

Jemma shares the experience that stress around exams is not confined to the exam itself, or to revision. She explains that she sees the stress as starting early and being everywhere. “You start to feel it as soon as you’re in Year 10 kind of- maybe before actually… And then in Year 11 it’s everywhere. Everyone’s stressing.”

(Video) Student advice on dealing with exam stress

Sami explains that in certain situations, such as when he’s feeling unmotivated to complete a piece of work he knows he’s able to do, a small amount of stress can be helpful. “If I’m stressing over it,” he says, “I’ll be able to get it and do it really quick. Whereas, if I’m not really bothered, like, not really stressed about it, I won’t.” Sami’s exam stress, however, is different and more extreme. It is unpleasant to experience and something he perceives as having a negative impact on his work. “Too much stress is just getting you panicked,” he explains. “And you can’t do anything because it’s too much.” His only solution to remove the feeling is to “move away from revision to calm down because you can’t do anything like that.”

Jemma’s experience of stress is similar. “The amount of pressure on that high level,” she says, “is sometimes so overwhelming that you don't want to do it.” Like Sami, she finds herself moving away from exam preparation and revision because of how stressed it makes her feel. She also describes feeling that stress will affect her during the exam, saying “who wants to sit there in an exam hall and be, like, doing this test when you can't remember anything because you're that stressed out?”

Both students explain that feeling stressed can make them feel negatively about all aspects of their school and exam work. Jemma explains that, “feeling that bad makes you feel like nothing’s right. Everything’s going to go bad.” When she gets extremely stressed she can begin to feel like she won’t get the grades she hopes for and describes feeling like she’s “just going to fail, and then there’s nowhere else to go.” Being extremely stressed can make the situation seem hopeless and success in their exams seem impossible.

What causes exam stress?

Both Jemma and Sami talk about not knowing what various aspects of the exam will be like, and this element of the unknown being a source of stress.

For Jemma, it is uncertainty around the exam itself which is a source of stress. “You don’t know what it’s actually like,” she says, when trying to imagine being in the exam. Even though she has taken mock exams there are still parts of the ‘real exams’ which remain unknown. “You don’t know the people who give out the papers,” she says, talking about the school's use of independent invigilators, “or where you’re going to be and stuff and that’s ominous with stress. It’s horrible.”

Sami describes feeling unsure about the questions which will come up in the exams. His teachers, he says, are more focused on teaching the content of the course than the structure of the exam. He describes asking his teacher about sample exam questions, because he feels, “we need to know what we’re going to come up against in the exam.” Sami explains that his teachers, “say we don’t. Like, we don’t have to worry about that right now, that’s something we do later. I think they will tell us later and that but it’s scary not knowing.”

For both students, as well as the unknown aspects of the exam itself, their lack of confidence in revision technique and confusion around what revision should look like was another source of stress.

Sami and Jemma give similar descriptions of their teachers highlighting the importance of revision, and encouraging them to do it. Sami views his teachers as saying, “you know what, just go home, go revise everything. You’ve got a test coming up,” but explains that he is left feeling that “you don’t know what that means.” He feels unclear on exactly what he should revise, and how he should go about doing it, stating that he wants his teachers to “just tell us what we’re meant to do.”

Jemma explains how feeling unsure of how to revise causes her stress. “Me as a person revising is just not good,” she says, “because, I will stress over it, and I will freak out about it and I just won’t remember anything and I’ll do crap in the exam.” And why does she see revision as a source of stress? “Because,” she explains, “the whole time you’re thinking ‘is this going to be something I remember? Am I doing it right? Should I be reading stuff or making flash cards or something?’”.

(Video) Teen stress from a teen perspective | Michaela Horn | TEDxNaperville

What can teachers do?

Interestingly, both students see their stress as something their teachers don’t, and can’t understand. “Unless you’ve lived with a child who’s telling you a lot about their lives and how stressed they are about their GCSEs, you’re not going to know what it’s like,” explains Sami. “There’s not much connection, to be honest,” Jemma says, talking about how much her teachers can understand about her experience of taking exams. “The things they say don’t even make sense for us. They don’t know what we’re thinking.” Despite this, they both agree that there are things teachers could do to improve their experience of working towards exams and reduce their stress.

“They should tell us that it’s not everything,” says Jemma. “Because that’s what every teacher tells us, that our GCSEs will set the future for all our lives. But it won’t. Like, it just won’t”. Sami agrees. His maths teacher, he says, already does something like this. “He says, you know what, if you don’t pass your GCSEs, at least you still learnt something and I’d prefer you learnt something than learn nothing and pass your GCSEs.” As well as making the exams seem more manageable, this gives Sami the sense that his teacher’s support is not conditional on his exam performance. “As least I’ve still got somebody who will be with me,” he says. “Even if I don’t pass my GCSEs, it’s somebody who will give me support and guidance, and still be confident in me. Like, who knows that GCSEs are just exams and you might not pass, but you don’t fail.”

“Advice on doing revision,” Sami says, is something he and Jemma agree would reduce stress when preparing for exams. “I think they should give us different types of revision,” Sami continues. “Like, what we should actually do, not just ‘go and revise,’ because there’s difference types and one type won’t work for everyone. I think it’s quite important.” Advice on specific revision techniques would “make you more confident,” Jemma explains, and reduce stress.

Although, Jemma says, “some kids really want to do well,” she perceives teachers as “putting on pressure”, telling students they are, or should be, stressed. “Just be gentler,” is what she advises teachers. “The pressure is sometimes way too much especially when it comes to revising and studying and extra lessons. Don’t tell us we should be stressed. We don’t need any more stress.”

As Sami and Jemma’s accounts show, students’ experiences of exams are complex. Discussing stress with your students can help to understand what they are experiencing. Although there are common reactions to stress, each student’s response is likely to be unique. By listening to what they have to say, you can begin to understand how to help and what support and techniques they could be given to empower them to help themselves.

Contributors to this blog series are:

Professor Kevin Woods (blog series co-ordinator)

Dr Cathy Atkinson

Kerry-Ann Brown

(Video) Helping Your Students With Exam Stress

Dr Rob Buck

Dr Deborah Flitcroft

Dr Jo Greenwood

Amanda Hipkiss

Dr Abi James

Tamsin McCaldin

David Soares

We are a group of researchers and practitioners working at, or in partnership with, The University of Manchester Institute of Education. We have professional backgrounds as school teachers and/ or educational psychologists working in secondary, primary and special schools. Our research and professional practice covers a range of learning and well-being issues, including those relating to school examinations and tests, such as examination stress, test anxiety, and access arrangements. We are pleased to be working with Ofqual to bring our understanding of these issues to a wider audience through a series of blogs to be published over the coming weeks. These blogs are written for teachers, parents, examinations officers, and older students. We hope you find them informative and helpful.

Recent projects:

Buck, R. (2018). An investigation of attentional bias in test anxiety. Manchester Institute of Education, The University of Manchester

(Video) How to Manage Stress as a Student

Flitcroft & Woods (2014). The language Key Stage 4 teachers use prior to high stake exams and how this can be adapted to suit their students. DfE ITEP-funded through The University of Manchester.

Hipkiss, A. (2014). Management of GCSE access arrangements: utilizing student feedback and observational data. ESRC-funded CASE project through the North West Doctoral Training Partnership (NWDTP).

McCaldin, T. (2015). GCSE student experience across Key Stage 4. ESRC-funded through the North West Doctoral Training Partnership.

Some recent publications:

Buck, R. (2016). An ethical approach to anxiety manipulation in school-based research. Psychology of Education Review, 40(2), 10-16.

Atkinson, C., Thomas, G., Goodhall, N., Barker, L. Healey, I., Wilkinson, L. & Ogunmyiwa, J. (2019) Developing a student-led school mental health strategy. Pastoral Care in Education. doi: 10.1080/02643944.2019.1570545

Flitcroft, D., & Woods, K. (2018). What does research tell high school teachers about student motivation for test performance? Pastoral Care in Education, 36(2), 112-125. https://doi.org/10.1080/02643944.2018.1453858

Flitcroft, D., Woods, K., & Putwain (2017). Developing practice in preparing students for high-stakes examinations in English and Mathematics. Educational and Child Psychology, 34(3), 7-19.

Woods, K., James, A., & Hipkiss, A. (2018). Best practice in access arrangements made for England’s General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSEs): Where are we 10 years on? British Journal of Special Education, 45(3), 236-255. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8578.12221


How Does exam stress feel like? ›

tense muscles or headaches. clammy hands or feeling butterflies in your stomach. a racing heartbeat or feeling sick. fidgeting, nail biting or teeth grinding.

What makes students feel more stressed about taking exams? ›

It can be related to a negative previous experience of exams, poor preparation, worry about failure, or pressure to perform. For children and young people who are generally anxious, the experience of taking exams can be very threatening and could lead to unmanageable increases in anxiety levels.

How do students feel during exams? ›

Many students experience some nervousness or apprehension before, during, or even after an exam. It is perfectly natural to feel some anxiety when preparing for and taking a test. Too much anxiety about a test is commonly referred to as test anxiety.

How do students deal with exam stress? ›

Break it down into small tasks and work on one task at a time. Take regular short breaks – use this time to have a drink, get something to eat or play with a pet. Ask for help - If you're having trouble with something you're studying ask a teacher, friend, sibling or parent to help.

Are exams stressful for students? ›

It is normal to feel a bit worried about exams, especially if you're under pressure from school or family. Exam stress can cause you to feel anxious or depressed, and this might affect your sleeping or eating habits. so they can be there to support you, encourage you and offer a listening ear.

How does stress affect exam performance? ›

Research shows high levels of exam stress can interfere with attention and reduce working memory, leading to lower performance. Early experiences of anxiety and stress can also set a precedent for mental-health problems in adulthood.

How does exam anxiety affect students performance? ›

In fact, students who struggle with test anxiety typically fall a half a letter grade below their peers. In addition to academic impacts, text anxiety can affect a student's mental health, including lowered self-esteem, confidence, and motivation.

How stress and anxiety affects students? ›

Left untreated, anxiety disorders can make it hard for students to get schoolwork done or study. It may affect their relationships with peers and teachers, too. In some cases, students with anxiety disorders miss a lot of school days. Or they may avoid school altogether.

Why do people stress exams? ›

Causes of exam stress are: Inadequate or last minute preparation. High expectations. Pressure from Teachers and Parents.

How do you usually feel when you have an exam? ›

It's normal to feel a little nervous and stressed before a test. Just about everyone does. And a little nervous anticipation can actually help you do better on a test. But for some people, test anxiety is more intense.

What emotions do you get during exams? ›

Panic. Fear is the most common emotion students feel during exams. You will notice how your heart races and your breath quickens when you see the question paper and you do not seem to know the first two questions.

How do you deal with exam stress essay? ›

6 Ways to Reduce Your Exam Stress
  1. An opportunity to plan your study sessions.
  2. Track your goals and planning steps to achieve them.
  3. Making sure you are on time with assignment due dates.
  4. Creating a balanced study routine.
  5. Reducing stress because of having a steady and clear plan created.

How do you overcome exam stress and fear? ›

Here's what you can do to stay calm in the days leading up to and during your test.
  1. Be prepared. ...
  2. Get a good night's sleep. ...
  3. Fuel up. ...
  4. Get to class—or the testing site—early . ...
  5. Have a positive mental attitude . ...
  6. Read carefully. ...
  7. Just start. ...
  8. Don't pay attention to what other people are doing.

How do you handle stress during final exams? ›

5 Ways to Handle Stress During Finals Week
  1. Identify it. Where or what is causing you the most stress? ...
  2. Write stuff down. The average college student has a laundry list of tasks to complete. ...
  3. Stay organized. ...
  4. Get some fresh air. ...
  5. Stay calm and practice gratitude.

What is most stressful about being a student? ›

College students commonly experience stress because of increased responsibilities, a lack of good time management, changes in eating and sleeping habits, and not taking enough breaks for self-care. Transitioning to college can be a source of stress for most first-year students.

What is most stressful things for students? ›

Leaving everything to the last minute is a major source of stress to students. Think about why you are finding it hard to get started – uncertainty about how to do the assignment, fear of being judged, or fear of failing?

How do tests affect students mental health? ›

This can cause many mental issues as students are studying for long periods of time and stressing about a test. According to soeoline.com, “Standardized testing causes headaches, sleep problems, depression, anxiety, stress and attendance issues”. Standardized testing is also, in some cases, ineffective.

What are the main causes for fear of exams? ›

What Causes Your Test Anxiety?
  • Being afraid that you won't live up to the expectations of important people in your life; worrying that you will lose the affection of people you care about if you don't succeed.
  • Believing grades are an estimation of your personal worth.
  • Placing too much emphasis on a single test.

How can we reduce examination anxiety and fear among students? ›

When getting ready for exams try to:
  1. Prepare ahead of time by working on sections of the content each day.
  2. Use practice exam papers as an opportunity to manage anxiety.
  3. Identify your anxiety early by noticing your physical responses.
29 Oct 2016

How does test anxiety affect motivation? ›

Test anxiety involves many negative effect including low motivation, inadequate concentration, poor academic performance, and high distress. [14,15,16] Motivation is the inner power or internal process that energizes and directs behavior to perform certain action in order to achieve the goals.

How does stress affect student learning? ›

Research indicates that when we feel overwhelming stress related to school it not only demotivates us to do the work, it reduces our overall academic achievement and can lead to increased dropout rates. Not to mention the negative health implications, including depression, poor sleep, substance abuse, and anxiety.

What is the effect of stress to students? ›

Psychological effects of stress

Anxiety. Problems with cognitive functioning (being unable to concentrate or learn as well as you normally would) Changes in behavior, such as being irritable, angry, hostile, frustrated, or withdrawn.

How does stress affect the behavior of students? ›

Stress is also known to have a negative impact on cognitive performance. Children who are under excessive stress may find it difficult to attend to stimuli (such as problems on tests, the meaning of a reading passage, or the voice of a teacher). They may seem restless or distracted.

How do you feel when you fail an exam? ›

A failed exam can feel like a big blow. It can even cause test anxiety for the next exam.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of taking exams? ›

Comparison Table for Advantages and Disadvantages of Exams
Advantages of ExamsDisadvantages of Exams
Exams assist the individuals in broadening knowledgeAnxiety and stress
Create competitionNot the right way of testing the knowledge of someone
Scholarships and a bright futureComparison between students
1 more row
12 Jan 2022

How can students overcome fear? ›

1. Overcoming Worry
  1. Step 1 – Identify the problem.
  2. Step 2 – Identify the possible solutions.
  3. Step 3 – List the pros and cons for each solution.
  4. Step 4 – Create an action plan.
  5. Step 5 – Implement the action plan.
  6. Step 6 – Review the plan and make amendments / changes.

How do you overcome exam tension? ›

How to reduce exam stress
  1. Prioritise your time when revising. ...
  2. Make a revision timetable. ...
  3. Exercise and eat healthily. ...
  4. Take breaks from social media before exams. ...
  5. Put your worries into perspective. ...
  6. Cut out caffeine, alcohol and nicotine. ...
  7. Do mock exams at home. ...
  8. Improve your exam time management.
12 May 2022

How do you gain confidence in exams? ›

  1. 1 THINK POSITIVE. A positive mindset can do wonders for your confidence in the exam hall. ...
  2. 2 RELAX. Many students will be familiar with that shaky, nauseous feeling you can sometimes get as you enter the exam hall. ...
  3. 3 BE PREPARED. ...
  4. 4 KEEP IN TIME. ...
  5. 5 KEEP IT HEALTHY. ...
  6. 6 TREAT YOURSELF. ...
  8. 8 KEEP BUSY.

What does exam burnout feel like? ›

Feeling uninterested in activities that you usually enjoy. Experiencing increased irritability and frustration and maybe snapping or lashing out at others. Struggling to concentrate and meet deadlines (which results in being unproductive). Feeling constantly exhausted (even if you are getting enough sleep).

Can you get sick from exam stress? ›

Numerous studies have shown that increased stress levels during exams cause hormonal changes in your body. Stress increases the levels of the hormone cortisol, which actually lowers your immune response. The fact that students who cram for exams are more likely to show signs of immune suppression is very telling.

What type of stress is exam stress? ›

Exam stress is the feeling of tension and worry that comes from test-taking situations. It is normal to feel some stress about upcoming tests, exams, papers or presentations. Indeed, a small amount of stress can challenge you and stimulate you to work harder.

What does student burnout look like? ›

Student burnout is a type of burnout that comes from extended academic stress. The main symptoms of student burnout include a lack of motivation and interest, impaired ability to focus, physical health issues, lack of creativity, and decreased academic performance.

How do you feel when your exam finishes? ›

Post-exam feels is one experience no student can avoid no matter how sure you are about the exam.
  1. Relief. Sigh! ...
  2. Pride. Your night reading and the long hours you spent in the library have finally paid off. ...
  3. Exhaustion. ...
  4. Doubt. ...
  5. Fear. ...
  6. Guilt. ...
  7. Impatience. ...
  8. Acceptance.
5 Feb 2018

How do students deal with burnouts? ›

Here are nine tips to help deal with and prevent college burnout:
  1. Get Physical. ...
  2. Change It Up by Studying Abroad. ...
  3. Consider a Gap Year. ...
  4. Develop an Emotional Self Care Practice. ...
  5. Find Someone You Can Be Honest With. ...
  6. Don't Skimp on Sleep. ...
  7. Utilize Your Campus' Mental Health Resources. ...
  8. Consult With the Campus Learning Support Center.
4 Jan 2022

Why is exam so stressful? ›

Causes of exam stress are: Inadequate or last minute preparation. High expectations. Pressure from Teachers and Parents.

What are the causes of exam stress? ›

Examination Stress: Its Causes And How to Deal With It
  • What Causes Examination Stress? We must understand the causes of stress during the exams. ...
  • Physical and Emotional Pressure. ...
  • External Pressure. ...
  • Internal Pressure. ...
  • Lack of Preparation. ...
  • Lifestyle. ...
  • Poor Studying Habits. ...
  • Physical Activities.
7 Jun 2022

How do exams affect mental health? ›

Exam stress can affect how we feel, think and behave. You might experience different things before, during and after your exams. When feelings of stress become too much to manage, this can affect our mental health. Stress can also make existing mental health problems feel harder to cope with.

How do you feel stress in your life? ›

If you are stressed, you might feel: Irritable, angry, impatient or wound up. Over-burdened or overwhelmed. Anxious, nervous or afraid.


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