How to beat exam stress

With exam season not far away, Tougher Minds Head of Education Andrew Foster considers why this part of the school year can be problematic for many, but also suggests a powerful solution.

“Sumer is ecumen in”, so runs the English medieval song about the change of seasons, which you might have come across in the 70’s classic film The Wicker Man. Our current intermittently more pleasant weather is a boon, but for many young people, parents and teachers there are grey clouds on the horizon between now and July.

In fact, we can predict with some confidence that by May, there will be a steady drumbeat of ‘Exam stress soars’ headlines. And, if recent years are anything to go by, the best solution offered will be scrapping examinations altogether, or in some way reducing their importance.

To me this signals a fundamental misunderstanding of why exam stress arises. Candidates for examinations feel pressure because they can see the gap between how they want things to go and how they might go. They can also often see themselves frittering away their remaining preparation and revision time, minute by minute, day by day.

This is not limited to schools. It was both fascinating and unnerving to hear from recent graduates of Cambridge University that they saw the same issues arising among their peers, despite them all having been selected as among the very best learners and exam-takers in the country. And even for those in the professional world, accountancy and medicine among other careers require us to grapple with the same challenges.

The good news is that it does not have to be like this. The “Exam Stress” headlines are not with us yet because it does not have our general attention. But if we want to minimise the problem in May, we should turn some attention to it now. This is why the core of the Tougher Minds programme is Helpful Attentional Control: learning how to H.A.C. our brains. One day I think this will be taught as a matter of course in Britain’s schools but sadly that day is some time off at present.

But there is support available, and available now. I am delighted we will be running two more Bite-size resilience training sessions at the UCL Institute of Education, because I have seen hundreds of pupils benefit from the support that Tougher Minds provides for them. They do not just perform more effectively but they are happier while they do it.

They learn simple but effective techniques that help them move their attention where it needs to go. They procrastinate less, plan and enjoy quality downtime and approach the exam hall with confidence, rather than trepidation.

Good luck to all sitting examinations this summer. But if you want more to rely on than luck, I strongly advise joining us on Thursday 21st April.

  • For more details of the Tougher Minds “Improve Exam Success” event on April 21st, click here
  • Also watch out for a series of  short podcasts looking at the issue of exam stress. The first will be released this week, so keep an eye on this blog.


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