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Student test and exam stress : The important role of educators

Many students experience stress related to their academic success at school. The changes in school over the past few years have also impacted the way students have been assessed, which can influence how they feel about tests and exams.

As an educator and caring adult, you can help prevent or reduce some of the stress students may feel related to tests and exams. You can also help students develop skills to manage and cope with life situations that may be stressful. Reflecting on the assessment practices and routines you choose, and then making small shifts can make a big difference for students. The purpose of assessment is to improve student learning. More transparent and equitable assessment practices can help increase student engagement and support positive mental health and well-being.

How to approach assessment with student mental health and well-being in mind

Many of the practices that you already know and do support student mental health and can also help guide assessment practices:

  • Build relationships: when you get to know students and build relationships, you can better recognize and shine a light on their unique strengths. Providing opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning in a way that highlights their personal strengths will improve their confidence and success.
  • Engage students: teach students how to reflect on and self-assess their learning. Co-create success criteria so that the path to learning is clear and understood by everyone. Involving and empowering students in these ways will lead to a sense of ownership and predictability that will help improve engagement and reduce stress.
  • Grow confidence with an asset-based approach: by looking for evidence of learning rather than deficits, you can both affirm student identity and bolster student confidence to keep the learning moving and growing.
  • Focus on feedback: providing descriptive and actionable feedback in a timely manner and giving students time to apply it will help reduce stress in students and give space for real learning to happen. Think critically about when to label an assignment with a grade and when to test students’ learning.

The practices noted above will help provide a solid foundation to prepare students for formal assessments. These practices are important to support all students and may be particularly relevant for students with learning, mental health, or other challenges that can potentially impact school success.

How to support students in the lead up to a test or exam

The next time you plan a test or exam, consider the many ways you can be of support. Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Ensure that students are aware of the content that will be included in the assessment prior to test/exam day.
  • Remind students to focus on what they can control about the test or exam (e.g., their preparation, taking care of themselves as best they can).
  • Encourage students to use the coping strategies that work best for them throughout the test or exam (deep breath, stretching, etc.)
  • Remind students their test scores do not equal their self-worth. They are so much more than their marks and have value just as they are.

Exam and test preparation tips from students for students

You can also support students by sharing concrete tips on how they can prepare for tests and exams. Check out this blog post on our student site, inspired by Ontario secondary school students, breaking down strategies for some of the most common assessment types. Share the post with your students, or feel free to repurpose the content for a tip sheet or lesson you’re developing.

What to do if you think a student needs more support

While there are many things educators and students can do to help with test and exam stress, sometimes other things get in the way of students’ ability to do well. If you notice students for whom these types of strategies aren’t helping, and their worry is big, long-lasting (more than two weeks), and gets in the way of what they need to do and their enjoyment of their life, reach out. Remind students they don’t have to do it on their own and that support is available.

Test and exams offer a practical opportunity to help students learn about mental health and well-being. For more ideas and lessons, check out MH LIT: Student Mental Health in Action, a series of four lessons to support the development of basic mental health knowledge and help-seeking skills. The lessons are designed for use with secondary students, focusing on building their understanding of mental health and mental illness, signs of mental health problems, and how/where to access help when needed. The resource includes an expansion lesson covering test and exam stress.