Tips for relieving student anxiety about exams

In a recent post Meg noted that undergraduate students often are anxious about their performance in courses, especially on exams. Like all instructors, I wish I had a magic wand to relieve that anxiety. Anxiety can be useful as a motivator, at least up to a point–worrying about your grade can motivate you to study. But anxiety also can inhibit your performance, for instance by causing sleeplessness or panic. Anxiety also causes some students to exhibit annoying behaviors–asking me “How many questions will be on the exam?” is a pet peeve of mine. Anxiety can even tempt students to cheat.

I don’t have a magic wand. But I can share a useful trick that my organic chemistry prof used to help students feel less anxious about the exams. I haven’t yet figured out how to use the trick in my own courses, as it was somewhat specific to his exams. But I bet others have their own tips and tricks for relieving student anxiety about exams. So I’ll share this trick, and you can share yours in the comments.

My organic chemistry exams consisted of nothing but syntheses. You were given a starting compound and a target compound, and you had to draw a series of reactions that would convert the former into the latter. Which was really hard, because you had to memorize a lot of different reactions. You’d often think of a series of reactions that might work, but then when you started sketching it out come to a sticking point. You’d need to remove a hydroxide group from a particular carbon atom or something, and couldn’t recall (or hadn’t been taught) a reaction that would do it. Thereby obliging you to start over. So like pretty much everyone in the class, I was anxious about the exams.

My prof, the wonderful David Richardson, had a clever trick to minimize our anxiety. We were allowed one “miracle” per exam. I believe the inspiration was this famous Sydney Harris cartoon:

A “miracle” for us was a single step in a synthesis which you were allowed to carry out without specifying the reaction. You just wrote “then a miracle occurs” and continued on, as if that pesky hydroxide group or whatever had just vanished. And you didn’t lose any marks for using your miracle.

Psychologically, this worked wonders. I still studied hard, of course, and I didn’t feel over-confident about my chances on the exams. But I didn’t feel especially anxious, because I knew that if I got stuck I could use my miracle!πŸ™‚

But of course, you were only allowed one miracle per exam, even though most of us would’ve needed many miracles to write perfect exams. So allowing a single miracle didn’t make the exams materially easier than they would’ve been without the miracle. But as far as I can recall, that never occurred to me. All I remember is that the exam felt much easier because I had a miracle in my back pocket.

A similar trick, which I think is fairly common, is to let students drop one question from their exam, or one quiz or assignment from their final mark. It doesn’t actually affect their marks that much, so long as the dropped items only comprise a small fraction of the total. But to many I’m sure it feels like it does.

Of course, tricks like this are no substitute for teaching the course well. The most important goal for any instructor is for the students to learn the material, not to make the students feel happy. But students often will feel anxious about their performance even if the course is taught well, which is where anxiety management comes in. And nor are these sorts of tricks replacements for other ways of addressing student anxiety, like sharing #myworstgrade to help them realize that a single course or exam generally isn’t that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. But every little helps.

So, what tricks do you have for minimizing student anxiety about exams?

7 thoughts on “Tips for relieving student anxiety about exams

  1. I say what is going to be on the exam in advance. Or, at least, the scope of what it will be. And I give a solemn promise that if there is any question on the exam that they weren’t explicitly told about in advance, that I’ll give everybody full credit for that question. That usually minimizes worries from would-be-worriers.

    • I find that no matter how much detail I give as to what will be on the exam, some students aren’t satisfied and want more. Well, that’s not quite true, I never go so far as to give out the questions in advance. Which I suspect is the only thing that would satisfy all of my students.

  2. Many of my profs put old exams on file in the library a few weeks ahead of each exam (all essay, no answers). Today u could put online. Tell them to use book and notes and actually do the exams. Lots of students just read the old exams and browse notes: poor way to prepare.

    If you’re really looking to ease their fluttering hearts – and get them to learn more – give them modest credit toward test for thorough job on old exams (10%?).

    Once I got a 72 on a very important mid-term. I was freaked but it turned out to be the highest score by 20 pts. Prof let us redo exam as homework for half of missed credit.

  3. I believe that if you are well prepared, you can condition yourself to fearand worry less. It all comes down to preperation for performance anxiety, and most of the time students are simply not prepared enough. Great share.

  4. My daughter is doing puzzle mazes, and, when she gets stuck in a corner, she says she’s going to fly over the wall. I think she’s using this technique, but she’s not limiting herself to just one miracle.πŸ™‚

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