Helping school students cope with exam stress
Exam season can be especially stressful for children in primary school; here's how neuroscience can help improve performance.
Asking students to visualise their own successful performance will help activate the memory circuits needed to help answer test questions.
Exam season can be especially stressful for children in primary school; many of their high-brain neural networks, which manage emotions such as stress, won’t have been built yet.
Neuroimaging research shows that stress blocks communication from the upper cognitive brain down to the brain’s lower core, which is more emotionally reactive. This means that just when children need it most, they have limited access to the upper-brain regions that help self-control, and access to their high-brain cortex where the memories they need are stored. Under pressure students can become emotional and find it hard to remember vital information.
Animals have a similar response to fear, which puts their lower brains in control. That is when we see animals go into automatic fight, flight, or freeze survival reactions. This is useful for survival, but when it happens to the human brain we lose touch with our ability to think before acting, or to respond effectively to questions.
But neuroscience can also help solve this problem. Understanding more about how their brains work enables students to develop techniques for remembering and accessing information when they need it.
How to help primary students de-stress
Before starting the test, get your pupils to visualise their own successful performance. This activates the memory circuits that will be called upon to answer the questions in the test, just as visualising a tennis swing or soccer kick activates the critical motor brain networks.
Also try practising relaxing rituals with students (mindfulness strategies, calming breathing, stress-busting visualisations) so these are readily available for them to activate immediately before or during tests when they are feeling stressed. This can be as easy as telling a joke, or relatable personal anecdote about your own exam experiences.
Reinforce test-taking tips you’ve previously shared with them too. Two key lessons include:
- If you don’t know an answer, go on to the next one. You may find information that triggers related memories in other questions.
- Don’t just select the first answer that seems right, because there may be a better one further down inside your head.
Finally, remind students that they are far greater and know much more than this specific test evaluates to reinforce their confidence about what they have learned. Remind them that a single test only measures how much they remember about the specific questions and not the wealth of knowledge they have acquired that was not selected for test questions. Let them see all the things you have accumulated that demonstrate what they do know – such as their homework, reports, group projects, quizzes and your notes about the good comments they made in class or when you visited their groups.
Help primary students remember information
Much of the curriculum on which students are tested in primary school – such as multiplication tables, vocabulary or grammar rules – requires things to be remembered. Learning strategies that help connect new and prior knowledge makes the tedious job of remembering bits of information easier. Additionally, information linked to a child’s personal interests or something they recognise can help them remember things for longer, and prevent them forgetting what they have learned immediately after an exam.
Memory is constructed through pattern matching. This requires activation of neural circuits related in some way to the new learning, allowing new input to link into long-term memory circuits.
Teachers know what their students have learned, and sometimes incorrectly assume that the connections will be apparent to them. Without the more mature skills such as deductive reasoning, analysis and conceptual thinking, younger students need guidance to link the new with the known.
There are many ways in which you can help them. For example, you can use bulletin boards and discussions before new instruction to remind children what they have already learnt about a topic. Using graphics, including leaf diagrams and timelines, can also be helpful. Another handy trick is summarising learning in a child’s own words and then getting them to teach each other through stories and skits.
If you are teaching about planetary movement, for example, children can learn this by moving balls of different sizes around a beach ball “sun” or circling around a chair while simultaneously rotating their bodies round. Reading important passages or children’s review notes aloud adds auditory memory networks to the visual input of the words they read.
Encourage parents to reinforce learning by linking the topics studied to related photos or videos of family trips, objects they own made in countries the students are studying, or by reading favourite stories that relate to topics in science, history, and maths.
Parents can also help increase memory bridges by relating the class learning to their children’s interests. If their children are interested in local sports teams, directed questions can boost memory of new learning. “If you were the coach of (fill in team name here) how would you use (the scientific principle just learned) to help your team win?”
The knowledge gained from brain research, when applied to learning, can help you energise and enliven your students’ memories. By helping them actively connect with the subject matter, they will have achieved something far more valuable than rote recall. By using your students’ prior knowledge, related memory banks, interests and learning strengths you’ll guide their brains to construct durable, long-term, efficiently retrieved memory – for the test and beyond.
(Image credit: Marcin Otorowski / CC BY-SA 3.0)
This article has previously appeared on The Guardian Teacher Network.