3 Ways to Beat Exam* Anxiety

*Also applicable to other high anxiety situations: marathon, job interview, first date etc.

It’s prime exam season, and the mind must be in tune with the brain for results to reflect knowledge. But psychology is not yet mainstream in teaching and teacher training. We teachers are big on the ‘what’ (i.e. knowledge), and at best skim over the ‘how’. This should change on a global scale, but I’ll start in my own lessons and here on my blog.

So what exactly do I mean by ‘how someone thinks’? Educating self-awareness on mindset: belief that intelligence can be improved, post-failure resilience, focus on process not results, others’ success as a motivation not a threat. Another example (and today’s topic!): techniques to break through the wall of exam stress to perform at optimal level. My Year 9 exam class requested this content during a recent Edurio survey, so this post is a summary of what I’ll integrate into lessons over the next month.

What’s the problem?

Back a few years to my A-Level P.E. course’s sports psychology content, and a graph comparing stress to performance. This refers to sports performance, but it can be applied to anything we do. The Riga Marathon is 2 weeks away, and the mind must be in tune with the body for times to reflect fitness; the mind must also be in tune for exam results to reflect knowledge.

Inverted U theory

To get to the top of the U and get the best possible exam result with the available knowledge (NB this is no substitute for studying!), we need to facilitate a shift to the right for the under cooked, and a shift to the left for the overcooked.

I’d argue that most students get too far to the right on exam day and experience ‘strong anxiety and impaired performance’ or worse, so most of these techniques will be practical ways to shift left on the graph and perch nicely on that peak of ‘Optimal Performance’.

The problems are psychological, but all solutions are physiological. When we understand that the body is a (complex) machine, we can set about tweaking the wiring and pushing the right buttons to get everything running smoothly. In this case, our enemies are a rise in heart rate (HR) and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which combine to shut down the frontal lobe of the brain and cause clouded thinking.

What can we do?

1. Power poses

Amy Cuddy, Associate Professor at Harvard Business School, has researched how holding a ‘power pose’ for just two minutes before a stressful situation (find a private space to do it in!) reduces cortisol levels and increases testosterone, leading to an increased sensation of power and confidence; vital for that shift left on the Inverted U.

This comes from evolution: animals adopt certain postures, making themselves look bigger and stronger, to stave off threats. However, you’re not tricking yourself into feeling confident with power poses, as is the case with repeating a mantra or posting a meme; the hormones released into the bloodstream that create this genuine feeling. Here are three power poses Professor Cuddy recommends:

The Wonder Woman



ceo pose

The Victory

Victory pose

See Amy Cuddy’s full TED Talk here.

2. Techniques to Decrease Heart Rate

A moderate increase in heart rate can improve focus and motivation, but high elevation in stressful situations is really not useful. Many scientific studies have found that elevated HR impairs the frontal lobe of the brain, which contains most of our dopamine-sensitive neurones, reponsible for attention and short-term memory.

frontal lobe

Regarding the Inverted U, an elevated HR pushes us further and further to the right on the graph, so we should implement some techniques to lower HR:

Option A. Deep breathing

Take a breath for 5-8 seconds, hold it for 3-5 seconds, exhale for 5-8 seconds. Exhale completely and repeat.

Option B. Splash yourself with cold (ice if possible!) water

This simulates the dive reflex, which slows down metabolism and heart rate.

3. Pre-mortem

Also known as prospective hindsight, this concept is designated to psychologist Gary Klein and has been used in business for years (education is always a bit slow to catch up!). You look ahead, predict everything that could go wrong, then come back to the present to solve the problems while you still can.

In our case, students should reflect on their likely weaknesses in the exam, and divise specific study strategies to overcome these. This is best done a few days or weeks before the exam in question rather than the night before. This can shift us left on the Inverted U, as possible problems will have been dealt with rather than just worried about.

This TED Talk ellaborates on this and explores other techniques that could be useful:

What do you think? Which techniques do you use or teach?

Please leave a comment!


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