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Managing stress: Well-being during Exams


For many learners taking exams is an important but inevitable and often stressful part of life. Key to learners succeeding in exams is not only teaching them the necessary language knowledge and making them test-wise but also helping them to develop ways to manage their well-being in this stressful period. In this blog, we will explore how to support learners in developing useful life skills to manage their well-being and in particular exam stress and anxiety.

What is all the stress about stress about?

Well-being is about being comfortable, healthy or happy (Mercer & Gregersen, 2020, p.2). It is about more than just managing stress. However, the stress of having to take exams can rule our learners’ brains. We all know that a certain amount of stress is actually helpful, it can maximise performance. But when emotions override learners’ thinking and the brain goes into a fight-flight-or-freeze mode it can lead to lower levels of achievement.

Learning how to maintain well-being and manage stress in exam preparation courses enables all learners to succeed under stressful circumstances. This ability is not only useful for exam classes, it is an invaluable life skill.

Why do exams cause stress?

Many different situations or life events can cause stress and exams commonly cause stress. Often learners feel under pressure to perform because the outcome of the exam, success or failure, might make a difference to their future.

Of course, everyone reacts differently to stressors, such as exams. So why do some learners get so stressed about exams that it impacts their functioning? In brief, their brain sees the high stakes of the exam as a threat to their survival. Their brain and body respond by triggering a series of reactions, these can be psychical, like headaches or stomach aches, or behavioural, like going quiet or displaying disruptive behaviour, or cognitive such as experiencing a lack of concentration or negative self-talk.

“Stress is our body’s response to a stimulus that our environment offers us, and as such it is not positive or negative”

Boniwell & Funaria, 20197

Interestingly, it is not the exam itself that causes stress. It is the belief that there is an imbalance between what the exam demands and the learner's current abilities. This gap results in thinking patterns such as I can’t cope, I’m overwhelmed. This makes the brain go into that fight, flight or freeze mode which leaves no room for cognitive functioning, or thinking.

How do we cope with stress?

We all have different ways of coping with stress (Sahler & Carr, 2009). Some people cope by avoiding stressful experiences, also called avoidance coping. However, this is not an option if you are a teenager in high school or need an IELTS score for university entrance! Others resort to passive coping: they might believe that can not change the way the exam goes and try to reduce the emotional stress they feel by for example biting nails, wishful thinking, eating or withdrawing from social situations. However, proactive coping can help learners to better cope with stress. Proactive coping is focused on building resources to deal directly with the stressor, in this case, the exam.

How to develop proactive coping strategies with learners in exam classes?

To enable learners to manage stress during the exam -and beyond- they need to be agents in the process. Of course, it is important to teach students to use to-do lists to help them plan their time and tasks in preparation for the exam but this is not enough for most.

Step one for learners in taking agency is to recognise and become aware of what they are feeling when they are stressed. Having self-awareness, the ability to recognise one’s own emotions, thoughts, strengths and limitations, empowers learners to act accordingly.

The second step is to give learners the tools to manage their stress and well-being so it doesn’t hinder their performance. For this learners need to develop self-management skills: the ability to manage one’s emotions, thoughts and behaviours in different situations. Both concepts are part of the social-emotional learning framework CASEL developed.

Whereas some curricula and coursebooks address these topics explicitly throughout the book, for example, Gateway to the World, developing self-awareness and self-management can also be included implicitly in any classroom, through a variety of activities. Below are some suggestions you could try.

Step 1 Developing self-awareness

Spotting the signs – As stress is a biological response it only seems logical we focus on the language of the body to recognise stress. This activity raises awareness of what stress might look like physically, cognitively, and emotionally. It can be done in learners’ first language, at home with parents/ carers or in class.

Name it, to tame it! - At the start of class ask learners to give you one word to describe how they are feeling that day. Learners write their emotions on a sticky note or mini whiteboard. This helps you get an idea of learners' moods. Next, ask learners to discuss what makes them feel this way. Interestingly noticing and naming emotions helps us pause and stop being overwhelmed by emotions and thus reduce stress. With young learners, ask them to draw how they feel or simply get them to point at flashcards with emotions to manage their emotions.

Step 2- Developing self-management

Being in a fight, flight or freeze mode means the brain focuses on survival. The brain can only learn when it is calm. So, the benefit of being able to regulate emotions means that students can use their cognitive resources again. The activities below follow on logically from developing self-awareness (Step 1).

3 by 3 by 3

This activity brings our brain back into action by focusing on the here and now and helps to override the panic state our emotions might cause. It is accessible to learners of all levels.

  • Name 3 things you can see

  • Identify 3 things you can hear

  • Move 3 body parts

My worry tree

This activity enables learners to think about worries in a more structured way and calm their mind. The structure below can help learners to separate real worries, worries they have some control over, from worries outside their control. It starts with one simple question: What are you worrying about? Next, follow the branches in the tree.

Celebrating small wins!

We can also actively work on boosting positive emotions. One way to enhance students' mental well-being is to focus on what they have achieved so far. This allows the brain to release a feel-good chemical and boosts learners’ well-being

  • One success I had this week…

  • Three things I now confidently remember…

  • Four things I’ve learnt this week…

  • Five things I’m grateful for today…


Introducing activities in the classroom that help learners develop self-awareness and self-management will not only help them to be better prepared for exams, it will also help them better manage stress in life.

But be aware, emotions are contagious. If we bring stress into the classroom it will affect our learners’ well-being! So it all starts with how well we can recognise and manage our own stressors. Because, we can’t give to our learners what we can’t give to ourselves!


Source: Macmillan Education


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