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Class Structures to Minimize Exam Anxiety

Exam value     Clear expectations     Student metacognition     Test anxiety

Consider modifying exam frequency and weight

One of the more straightforward options to reduce exam-related stress and anxiety is to have more frequent and smaller point value exams, allowing students more opportunities to succeed in the class. This has been shown to make classes more equitable by reducing the gender gap in cases where exams were 50% or less of the total course grade (Cotner et al 2017). Cotner and colleagues’ study included an analysis of  classes where the exams counted for different percentages of the class in separate semesters. In the three classes analyzed, women’s performance on exams was depressed in courses where exams comprised a higher percentage of the total class grade.

Graph showing that women underperform on exams when exams are a higher proportion of course points
Student exam scores in courses before and after a shift in the percent of course points derived from exams. Figure derived from Cotner et al., 2017.

One way to reduce high stakes exams is to give more frequent and smaller assessments. This approach not only has the potential to reduce disparity in the course, it also takes advantage of the  the testing effect (also called retrieval practice)–or an increase in learning that occurs upon frequent recall of knowledge (Bailey et al 2017). The figure below demonstrates two examples of courses that have a high fraction of points from high-stakes exams and two examples that have been transformed to have a lower fraction of  points from high-stakes exams. Figure showing course structures with higher exam percentages (top) and lower exam percentages (bottom). Bottom examples have participation, quizzes, and homework to supplement grades from exams.


Clarify your expectations 

A common student complaint is that they are unsure of what material is important in a class, and what depth level they need to answer questions on an exam.

  • Use learning objectives within the lecture and pre-lecture. Explicitly telling the students your goals of each lecture with learning objectives, and then integrating those into your lectures helps the students recognize what content is important. Researchers have seen increases in retention of knowledge where the learning objectives were highlighted in a pre-test before delivering the information (Sana et al, 2020).
  • Discuss the scope of the class and how you would like the students to answer questions. It’s important to clarify if you want them to answer with the “big picture” or the “small picture” when answering questions. For example, if you ask a question where a ball is sitting on top of a ramp and you ask what happens if a hammer hits it with a specific amount of force, is the appropriate response that it rolls down the ramp, or that so much of that force is translated to kinetic energy and the ball rolls down the ramp at a specific speed? Giving students a chance to practice exam-like questions in lecture, accompanied by modeling an appropriate response, is a good way to help your students understand your expectations.


Use pre- and post-test prompts that promote metacognition

By adding course components that enhance your students metacognition and self-regulation, you can help them prepare more effectively for exams and reduce the stress associated with them.

  • Prompting students to plan their study for an exam by choosing resources they will use and naming ways they will use them has been shown to increase student success (Chen et al, 2017).
  • Exam reflections are a well-established tool to review the exam with students. Common types of questions include:
    • What was your anticipated grade on the exam? What was your actual grade?
    • What study techniques did you use to prepare for the exam?
    • What was the most effective in your preparation?
    • Review the questions you missed. Was there a common concept in those questions?
    • What is your plan for studying for the next exam? What are you going to do weekly, daily, or in the final week before the exam?
  • Pairing exam reflections with enhanced answer keys has been effective in increasing metacognition and understanding of material. An enhanced answer key provides ideal student responses, clarifies common mistakes, and explains grading if partial credit was rewarded. (Sabel et al, 2017).
  • These exercises can also be combined with exam corrections where the students explain what they did wrong in their answer and why the correct answer is correct to get a portion of the points back they missed. Exam corrections have been shown to significantly improve performance on post-exam exercises including the final exam (Mynleiff et al, 2014).
  • When returning an exam, some instructors have had success with giving the students statistics on the entire exam as well as individual questions (see this pdf for an example from Shane Hutson). They have seen students get a firmer grasp on their performance within the class based on their performance in comparison with their peers, like missing the same question that 40% of the class missed in contrast with missing a question 10% of the class missed.


Introduce approaches to mitigate test-related anxiety and stress 

Interventions that directly address the emotional component of stress can also be beneficial. These interventions have been found to have significant impact:

  • Expressive writing and reappraisal of emotional response to exam-related stress have been shown to decrease the effects of test anxiety (Rozek et al, 2019).
    • An expressive writing prompt: Take the next 5 minutes to write about your thoughts and feelings about the exam you are about to take. In your writing, explore your emotions and thoughts as you are getting ready to start the exam. You might write about your current thoughts or write about how you have felt during other similar situations at school or in other situations in your life. Try  to be as open as possible as you write about your thoughts at this time.
    • Reappraisal prompt: Reappraisal prompts ask students to read about physiological responses to stress and its relationship to performance. Students are then asked to answer two questions to help them process the reading. A specific example can be found here.
  • Values affirmations have also been shown to decrease gender and racial gaps on exams. These exercises have been introduced early in the semester and/or immediately before an exam. The students are prompted to write for 10-15 minutes about the values that are most important to them focusing on their thoughts and feelings about the values. (Miyake et al, 2010; Jordt et al., 2017)

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