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.
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! 🙂
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?