• Question: How can we help pupils with exam stress? How can we help them remember Science equations etc?

    Asked by forda to Alice, Cat, Christina, Sveta on 29 May 2018.
    • Photo: Cat Sebastian

      Cat Sebastian answered on 29 May 2018:


      Exams are one of the most stressful periods of a person’s life, and we ask young people to manage a lot during this time. Why are exams so stressful? It’s a unique combination of being put on the spot to remember and apply everything you’ve been taught, but also the sense that the outcome will have long term repercussions for the future. Indeed my impression is that emphasising the importance of exam results long term is used as a powerful motivator to encourage young people to study. No doubt it is important to emphasise this point, but I wonder if it backfires for some students, particularly those who are already highly conscientious and prone to ‘catastrophising’, e.g. imagining failing an exam outright, which in turn leads to imagining failing in education altogether, which in turn leads to imagining failing in life, etc. Research has shown that temporal distancing or ‘taking the long view’ is an effective form of emotion regulation for stressors like exams. The ability to reflect that a negative event now, no matter how painful, will not blight one’s life forever is related to low stress and better wellbeing: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27399251.

      What about young people? We published some research last year: (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02699931.2017.1358698) which showed that adolescents aged 12 and above are able to use temporal distancing to reduce stress when contemplating scenarios such as failing an exam, getting a bad mark, or having a fight with a friend. The further ahead our participants looked, the greater the stress reduction. So this might be one strategy to help young people to get some perspective. Yes exams are important, but there are many routes to success in life.

      This sort of strategy is ‘cognitive’ in nature, i.e. it requires a deliberate effort to downregulate negative emotion and manage stress. However, when an event is very stressful, people may not find it easy to use such an effortful approach. While perhaps counterintuitive, research suggests that when faced with high intensity stress (such as serious anxiety about upcoming exams), using a tactic of distraction can actually be more beneficial than trying to deliberately control emotion: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3647109/ Distraction via exercise might be particularly beneficial given the additional stress-busting properties it holds, but it could even be something as simple as playing a low effort computer game. When stress levels are at a more manageable level, that’s when more effortful cognitive strategies can be used, and lead to long-lasting stress reduction.

      I know less regarding effective strategies for remembering things such as science equations, though I know mnemonic devices and visual metaphors can be helpful (I still remember which axis is the ‘y’ axis by thinking of a yoyo going up and down!). However, I would say reducing stress as outlined above is an important part of ensuring that pupils are able to recall information they have previously revised to the best of their ability.

    • Photo: Sveta Mayer

      Sveta Mayer answered on 17 Jun 2018:


      Hi Forda, I’ll focus on the part of your question about learning science and relate this a little to helping students with stress during exams.

      As you’ll be aware, there are various pedagogic models to help students learn science. These range from e.g. use of toys or abstract objects to represent living and non-living things; analogic models to represent non-observable things (e.g. atoms and molecules); symbolic and mathematical equations to represent chemical reactions and physical properties and processes. However, students may often experience interacting with these models as a mental exercise and so develop mental representations unique to them, some of which may include misperception or misconception.

      You might find it interesting to read the review paper by Madan & Singhal (2012), where the reviewers highlight the value of engaging students in both mental and physical interactions with learning. This could be developed with models for science learning such as those above. The review found researchers reported students’ learning and memory was enhanced when they mentally and physically interacted in the process of learning (calling this ‘the enactment effect’) more so than observing someone else demonstrate or verbally describe the models.

      Interestingly the review also considers the effects of physical exercise in enhancing cognitive performance, noting that research findings are suggesting that less intensive aerobic exercise enhances cognition and executive functions rather than intense exercise. Of course in exam conditions, students experience of stress may hinder their memory so stress-busting exercises as suggested by Cat above would be invaluable.

      I’d also like to flag up, with colleagues at the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, I’m involved in a currently ongoing research project called the ‘UnLocke Project’ (www.unlocke.org). We are focusing on developing primary children’s cognitive inhibition of naïve misperceptions and misconceptions or those developed from their unique mental representation as they previously learned science and maths. The process is akin to mental exercise as described by Madan & Singhal (2012). Children take time to ‘Stop and Think and are prompted to apply their higher-order cognitive skills of reasoning to deliberate whether they have a misperception or misconception. That is children engage in mental interaction with prior learning. There is no physical interaction but your question has made me wonder whether mental interaction helps students during exam!!

      Reference: Madan, C.R. & Singhal, A. (2012). Using actions to enhance memory: effects of enactment, gestures, and exercise on human memory. Front. Psychology 3:507. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00507

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