January 2011



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First Published Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Under Pressure
Helping Students Prepare For the Stress of Mid-Term Exams

by Dana Benson

When children complain about upset stomachs and headaches, it could be more than a virus. This is the time of year when students are preparing for mid-term exams, and test anxiety could be causing their symptoms.

Anxiety about an impending test is a serious problem that can even make some students physically ill, according to psychologist Dr Megan Mooney, adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Baylor College of Medicine.

Test anxiety can be seen in students of all ages. Some will deal with it throughout their schooling because anxiety can be a genetic trait, said Dr Mooney. Other students may be able to overcome their test anxiety, especially if parents respond to it in the right way, she said.

If we respond by talking about being nervous and anxious as a normal thing and introducing techniques to cope with it, then test anxiety can be very manageable,” said Mooney, also staff psychologist at DePelchin Children’s Center and a counselor at River Oaks Elementary.

If, on the other hand, parents respond by letting their child stay home and avoid the test or by getting upset and reinforcing the feeling of nervousness, then test anxiety could become a longer-term condition.

Mooney works with students on relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, and on thought-stopping skills that get rid of negative thoughts that start creeping in at exam time.

These techniques really need to be reinforced at home as well,” Mooney said. “All of the skills to decrease the symptoms of anxiety should be practiced. It’s just like learning how to play a sport – you have to practice over and over again so these techniques become a habit for children.

Exam Stress

Parents must also be aware of the messages they are sending their children, Mooney said. Schools can be high-pressure settings where there is a lot of competition, and parents can add to the pressure with their own high expectations. Mooney urges parents to talk about the importance of kids’ trying their best, rather than focusing on grades.

Students of all ages must also take care of their physical health at exam time by eating well and getting enough sleep. Older students also can help ease their anxiety by creating a schedule for themselves as soon as they receive their syllabus. They should find an optimal studying environment, whether it’s a quiet library or somewhere they can have music playing.

While anxiety can be overwhelming if not properly dealt with, Mooney pointed out that it is a biological symptom that exists for a reason.

When we experience anxiety, we get a burst of adrenaline that makes us more aware and helps us focus and concentrate,” she said. “Having a little bit of anxiety about wanting to do well on a test can actually help motivate us.

Einstein, math anxiety

Einstein Quote

Math Anxiety Swamps Working Memory

Barbara Isanski

Imagine you are sitting in the back of a classroom, daydreaming about the weekend. Then, out of nowhere, the teacher calls upon you to come to the front the room and solve a math problem. In front of everyone. If just reading this scenario has given you sweaty palms and an increased heart rate, you are not alone. Many of us have experienced math anxiety and in a new report in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, University of Chicago psychologist Sian L. Beilock examines some recent research looking at why being stressed about math can result in poor performance in solving problems.

Much of Beilock’s work suggests that working memory is a key component of math anxiety. Working memory (also known as short term memory), helps us to maintain a limited amount of information at one time, just what is necessary to solve the problem at hand. Beilock’s findings suggest that worrying about a situation (such as solving an arithmetic problem in front of a group of people) takes up the working memory that is available for figuring out the math problem.

The type of working memory involved in solving math problems may be affected by the way the problems are presented. When arithmetic problems are written horizontally, more working memory resources related to language are used (solvers usually maintain problem steps by repeating them in their head). However, when problems are written vertically, visuo-spatial (or where things are located) resources of working memory are used. Individuals who solve vertical problems tend to solve them in a way similar to how they solve problems on paper.

Beilock wanted to know if stereotype-induced stress (i.e. reminding women of the stereotype that “girls can’t do math”) would result in different results for solving vertical versus horizontal math problems. The findings showed that the women who had been exposed to the negative stereotype performed poorly, although only on the horizontal problems (which rely on verbal working memory). Beilock suggests that the stereotype creates an inner monologue of worries, which relies heavily on verbal working memory. Thus, there is insufficient verbal working memory available to solve the horizontal math problems.

It has generally been shown that the more working memory capacity a person has, the better their performance on academic tasks such as problem solving and reasoning. To further explore this, Beilock and her colleagues compared math test scores in individuals who had higher levels of working memory with those who had less. The subjects took a math test either in a high pressure situation or low pressure situation. It turns out that the subjects with higher working memory levels performed very poorly during the high pressure testing situation-that is, the subjects with the greatest capacity for success were the most likely to “choke under pressure”.

Beilock surmises that individuals with higher levels of working memory have superior memory and computational capacity, which they use on a regular basis to excel in the classroom. “However, if these resources are compromised, for example, by worries about the situation and its consequences, high working memory individuals’ advantage disappears,” Beilock explains.

As more schools start emphasizing state-exam based curricula, these studies will become increasingly relevant and important for the development of exams and training regimens that will ensure optimal performance, especially by the most promising students.

Beilock SL. Math Performance in Stressful Situations. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2008;17(5):339-343   [Abstract]


Education:  The Needs of Autistic/AS Students

Of course everyone is different but here, we aim to provide you with an idea of the type of support a person with autism or Asperger syndrome may need:

  • *Immediate access to pastoral support or a particular staff member you can go to with any concern
  • *A dedicated support worker
  • *Staff to have awareness training
  • *Specialist tuition support, eg language skills, structuring work
  • *Materials in literal language
  • *Extra time immediately after group sessions to check that they have been understood
  • *Alternative ways of completing team work than group working
  • *To have the same information conveyed in more than one way, eg verbally and in writing
  • *Time to get accustomed to the campus or site
  • *Preparation for changes of routine, eg around exam time.

Other needs may include:

  • *Access to relevant college documents, eg Disability Statements, equal opportunities policies, students handbooks etc
  • *Sufficient information and awareness amongst staff and students who know about your disability
  • *Staff to act as role models for other students in treating you with respect and offering equal opportunities
  • *Adequate financial support to cover any extra costs
  • *Access to all college and campus facilities
  • *Support and information before and during the admissions process
  • *Additional time allowance to complete the whole course
  • *Additional time allowance to complete coursework
  • *Study skills service
  • *Specific accommodation arrangements
  • *Evacuation and safety procedures
  • *Support from local authority services
  • *Disabled Students’ Co-ordinator or Inclusive Learning Co-ordinator
  • *Disabled Students’ Representative in Student Union

And alternative exam and assessment arrangements such as:

  • *Preparation for the change of routine involved in sitting exams
  • *Use of a separate room with an invigilator
  • *Extra time
  • *Exam paper written on plain paper in one colour
  • *Exam papers written in literal language or a support worker to clarify the language of an exam paper
  • *Use of a prompt to remind you when to move on to next question
  • *Word processing facilities if motor control is impaired.

This information was taken with permission from SKILL National Bureau for Students with Disabilities information sheet: ‘The needs of students with disabilities in Further and Higher Education’ and ‘Exam Arrangements for Disabled Students’.


“Skill is a national charity promoting opportunities for young people and adults with any kind of disability in post-16 education, training and employment across the UK.”

SKILL’s Information Service;
Tel: 0800 328 5050  or 020 7657 2337
(Monday to Thursday 1:30-4:30pm)
Or email info@skill.org.uk

If you require further information please contact the
NAS Autism Helpline
Tel: 0845 070 4004

Harvard Med. School: Free Guide to Remaining Calm During Stressful Times


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