Coping up with Examination Stress.

Coping with Exam stress – the demystification and relaxation process

by Judy Churchill, Monaco and France

( This article was originally written for the IATEFL Testing SIG Newletter.
We would like to thank the Testing SIG Newletter Editor for permission to re-publish Judy’s work)

Never fear for exams.You have idea of everything in this world. Have a healthy attitude, renounce fear and tension, be calm and face examination with a cool attitude. Fear for anything makes you more worried and wipes off your all your confidence and ruins your knowledge. It's after all exams for what you already know and at the same time, respect all the exams. Don't worry, you are born to do something unique and the best. All the Best ! :)
Never fear for exams.You have idea of everything in this world. Have a healthy attitude, renounce fear and tension, be calm and face examination with a cool attitude. Fear for anything makes you more worried and wipes off all your confidence and ruins your knowledge. It’s after all exams for what you already know and at the same time, respect all the exams. Don’t worry, you are born to do something unique and the best. WISH YOU ALL THE VERY BEST ! 🙂 ~ Scintillations


Exam stress, its causes, consequences and solutions for combating it have, over the last few years, led me to initiate a certain amount of research into the subject. Once a victim of exam nerves myself with what seemed to be the « inevitable » consequences of under-performance and poor results, I had eventually, by the time I reached my university finals, found a way of dealing with this handicap that enabled me to obtain the results I wanted and felt I deserved.

However, having been involved in the last five years in testing my own students using the TOEIC test, I have become more and more interested in how we as trainers can not only single out those students who are likely to suffer from this often incapacitating emotional response but in more detailed ways how we can help all our students live their test or exam as a « user-friendly » experience with a view to achieving better results that reflect their true ability outside the exam setting.

My first task has been to identify the main causes of exam stress, many of which both student and trainer are unaware and unwittingly unaware . My second task is to suggest ways of combating them using a variety of methods some more unusual than others. My third task is to continue my own research and reading and to study the reactions of the brain when faced with stressful circumstances with special reference as to how it will react within an exam setting.

What can we, as trainers, do to help our students override certain « automatic deep- seated » reactions that could have a negative effect on results ? And how, more importantly, can we re-programme the brain into reacting more positively to produce or favour a better performance at the time of the test? This area has been neglected or even totally ignored in the past but it is my belief that it holds the key not only to better results for our students in the testing room but reveals the solutions for better « coping » strategies and enhanced life skills when dealing with any form of stressful situation they or we may encounter in or out of testing circumstances.

What causes exam stress?

In my talk at the IATEFL Brighton 2003 conference I identified the following areas as contributing factors :

  • Fear of the unknown
  • Unfamiliar surroundings
  • Fatigue/feeling unwell
  • Hunger
  • Physical tension
  • Nerves
  • Noise
  • Lack of preparation
  • Uncomfortable seating
  • Unfamilar/unpleasant smells
  • Time pressure
  • Wrong temperature (too hot too cold)
  • Cramped conditions
  • Bad lighting
  • Low quality audio equipment

How can we deal with these negative factors ?

Factors such as bad lighting, cramped conditions, low quality audio equipment, the wrong temperature, uncomfortable seating and noise are all technical problems, unacceptable in the exam room and under no circumstances should a test taker have to be subjected to them. In the procedure guide that we receive as test administrators when doing the TOEIC or TFI test the rules are very clear. It is up to us, as invigilators, to make sure that we conform to ETS rules and guidelines to ensure the best possible testing environment. Many other tests require the same strict adherence to rules. Noise is often forgotten about, but it can prove disastrous for a candidate who is doing the listening element of a test such as TOEIC where for 45 minutes they have to react quickly and accurately to a barrage of listening comprehension exercises. A photocopy machine, drinks machine in the next room not to mention groups of students congregating outside the testing room as they file out of the neighbouring room can not only weaken concentration but cause the student to totally miss what is actually being said on the cassette. These problems can easily be dealt with a little preparation and reconnaissance work by the trainer. Under no circumstance should a test be carried out in a « last minute » setting or environment that has not previously been checked out for the above mentioned potential problems. The test taker has a right to a minimum level of comfort.

Fear of the unknown

Fear of the unknown seems to me to be the single most important factor in explaining the under-performance of many students in the testing environment. This area is a minefield and yet if dealt with sensitively has probably the greatest potential as a fast-track method for improving students scores and boosting confidence in the foreign language production context. Lack of familiarity, as I mentioned in my article Ballet Shoes and Slippers  (HLT Year 4 July 2002), and fear of the unknown whatever the situation, must be the single most important triggers of stress. This means that your first task as trainers is to demystify the set-up !

It seems logical to familiarise your students with the format of the test and what they can expect to meet at any given stage in the test. At the very least this may mean doing one or two mock tests with your students, or more extensively giving them diagnostic tests and then helping them build strategies for coping with their own particular areas of weakness. It is vital to give them opportunities for success in those « problem » areas, albeit in the class room . This will trigger the “success breeds success”  process, an effect that will carry over into the exam room. A positive thinking attitude is encouraged even when faced with what would otherwise be perceived as a “no-can-do” area of the test . I personally make extensive use of the « Official TOEIC Preparation Guide «  in the classroom, as it is packed full of helpful ideas and suggestions for trainers and students alike, with many pair and group work exercises. It even gets students writing their own test questions – and I know of no better way of demystifying a test that the DIY approach. If the students want to carry on practising at home I encourage them to use books such as « 30 days to the TOEIC test » which is a new 30 minute-a-day approach to the test preparation with a variety of short and succinct awareness building exercises. In France and Monaco where I do most of my training, we are lucky enough to have a publication calledVocable which produces its own mini TOEIC supplement every third issue based on the Vocable magazine articles. Of course it is not a genuine TOEIC test but the students love it as it familiarises them with the format, is printed in colour and content-wise is based on the latest news articles.

So knowing what to expect when they open their test booklet will reduce the stress factor significantly for your students, whatever the test, and enhance their performance – try it – I know it works.

Familiarity with the test also includes time management skills, learning how to allocate enough time to each section of the test. When I am invigilating a test session, I frequently see very competent students, who, as a result of time mis-management, are making a mad dash for the finishing line and losing valuable marks along the way and therefore doing themselves a incredible disservice. French students are notorious for bad time management skills as they are accustomed to having anything up to six hours or longer in the exam room. In fact it is a universally accepted fact in France that the longer you spend doing a task the more dedicated or competent you are perceived to be. Therefore the idea of having a cut-off point or working to deadlines is alien and offensive to their way of thinking . However they need to be made aware of this problem not only for the purposes of sitting a test such as TOEIC, where the reading section is divided into three distinct parts with a total time limit of 75 minutes, but also for the purposes of the working environment where many of them will work in international companies where they will be expected to time-manage in the Anglo-Saxon/Nordic way. As a trainer you can help your students with time management skills not only through using mock tests but by setting them time limits on tasks you give them to accomplish in the classroom and helping them with reading skills exercises such as skimming and scanning, skills that they will subsequently take into the exam room and hopefully successfully apply.

Unfamiliar surroundings

Think back to the last time you went to new place for the first time and notice how you struggled to find your bearings, lost your car in the car park, couldn’t find your way through a myriad of corridors, took the wrong street, or think of your first trip away from home when you where young, or bring back to mind your first day at a new school and don’t tell me you relished the thought! Tell me rather that you felt nervous, apprehensive, frustrated, exasperated (I lose my car on a weekly basis) and then I will believe you . This is what the test candidate feels when entering an unfamiliar testing room for the first time. The brain shouts – DANGER!- unfamiliar territory- and by default conjures up memories of the last time the student was on unfamiliar territory. Now, if the strange place happens to be a five star restaurant with entertainment to follow, you may well be saved the negative memories, but if, on the other hand, you are lost in a maze of hospital corridors, you’re in big trouble. The brain will reproduce the same hostile reaction in the test environment. You can combat this by familiarising your student with the setting, by doing a mock test in the room before hand or even better using the room for a joke telling session or other light-hearted occasion. This will pre-programme pleasant « memories » into the brain’s limbic system or emotional centres. These positive memories will be recalled on the day they sit the test. Of course this is not always possible but where feasible should be carried out. The difference in attitude of students entering a room with which they are familiar and at ease is almost palpable and subsequently gets reflected in the test results.

Before I do a presentation I always check the room out or do a « reconnaissance » often going to a previous presentation in the same room to get a feel for the « vibes », colour of the walls, size of the room etc. Why do football teams traditionally play better matches « at home »? Why do we say « there’s no place like home » ? Familiarity with and comfort in our surroundings are the key factors here.

Physical tension.

A major player, and a malignant virus capable of crashing our system in test circumstances is physical tension. It manifests itself in the form of butterflies in the stomach, stomach cramps, physical aches and pains, tense back and shoulders, vomiting, diarrhoea and other such physically incapacitating conditions. This is a problem that I myself had to learn to combat when I was taking my own university finals and led to my initial interest in researching this subject further. As I mentioned in my article Ballet shoes and Slippers :

“I found I would repeatedly work myself up into a frenzy before any kind of test or examination. This would have both negative physical and mental repercussions on my health. I therefore developed a strategy of doing a favourite, familiar activity before each exam session that would enable me to steady my nerves and have a calming effect on my system without sending me to sleep. I donned my ballet shoes and headed off each morning for an early dance class. The stretching movements released tension and were beneficial prior to be hunched up over a desk in an examination room and the exercises were strenuous enough to get the endorphins (the body’s natural pain and stress killers) going without being too exhausting.” The physical activity got the general circulation going which in turn increased blood circulation to the brain increasing its capacity to deal with the upcoming exams. “To feel those ballet shoes on my feet and to know that this was a chosen non-compulsory activity of my own free choice, also helped to put me in a positive, confident frame of mind, not to mention cutting out the danger of last–minute cramming. It made all the difference. I was more than happy with my results and to this very day if I find myself facing a stressful situation, I go and do some sport. The ballet shoes have been replaced by running shoes but the effect is still the same.

I have asked around to find out if other people had had similar experiences in coping with exam stress and found that yet again the familiarity factor was evident. Ian Bell, Director of European Development with ETS, Europe, told me that he used to go into his exams wearing his slippers! It was the physical comfort of his feet that was important to him, physical foot comfort equalled « home comfort » equalled familiar comfortable surroundings equalled taking the edge off exam stress. Well, why not? If a pair of slippers means the difference between good or bad results then wear your lambs wool or tartans into the test room. According to Ian, you develop your own anti-stress strategies based on what works best for you even if it means wearing your dressing gown! In the case of your students it may be a brisk walk, a swim, a workout at the gym that makes all the difference or some other pleasurable physical activity. It doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that it has the desired effect: positive repercussions on the upcoming ordeal! The releasing of endorphins into the system will also help combat the brains « fight or flight » response so handicapping in the listening sections of a test and something that I shall deal with in greater detail further on.

Fatigue, feeling unwell, hunger

Here again we are dealing with highly incapacitating and stress-arousing conditions which can be easily avoided. It goes without saying that not only should you remind your students to get a good night’s sleep prior to their exam but also, as a trainer, try and select the time of day for your test when your students are likely to be most alert. I systematically find that test sessions that are held after lunch produce a roomful of drowsy candidates. The morning is traditionally a good time for test takers but a bad time for companies to release their employees for tests. It tends to be the most productive time of the day, work –wise. As a trainer you should work closely with human resource departments to explain that employees need to be given the best possible circumstances in which to sit their test. On the other hand a student who turns up for a morning test session having not had breakfast is also going to find themselves suffering when the brain cries out for a sugar boost and they are in a test where no food or drink is allowed. Hypoglycaemia is as much a handicap in test circumstances as overeating, because extra stress is causing the brain to search for extra sources of energy.

I discourage my own students from turning up for their TOEIC if they are feeling unwell. Two main reasons stimulate me to make this « rule ». Firstly a student who is unwell will be working with reduced potential, fatigue and increased stress. They will inevitably under- perform. Secondly a student who is coughing, sneezing or sniffing loudly and regularly through the listening comprehension section of the test will prevent others from hearing the cassette. As a trainer you can forewarn your student of all of the above-mentioned circumstances or even produce a mini handout with recommendations prior to sitting their exams.

Nerves and Lack of preparation

Although nerves can often be caused an overload of physical tension, they can also be the results of a lack of preparation, and will result in a lower end score or a disappointingly poor result. There is no substitute for the well prepared, motivated student who has put in the required amount of study work and done their utmost to maximise the exposure to the target language and maybe has done some practice tests off their own bat. . However, we all know as trainers, that our students are only human and those who fit the model I have just described are few and far between. How then can we best help our students to prepare for the circumstances they are about to face and reduce the « shock » factor and encourage « the I know what to expect » reaction in the brain which will mean that yet again stress associated with the « unknown » is reduced?

Preparation can include being familiar with the administrative procedures preceding the test itself. If students who are doing the TOEIC know and have even practiced the 30 minutes worth of form filling and colouring in of circles (sends French students into paroxysms of despair when confronted with this for the first time) by the time they reach the testing room it’s child’s play.

Prepare your students for the concentration skills that will be necessary for the listing section of the test. First subject yourself to the test or at least the sample test. You’ll be surprised to see how quickly your own attention wanders and that you inevitably miss certain responses if you are not concentrating 100 % . You can for example help your student combat the incapacitating fight-or- flight response. This something of which both trainers and students are often blissfully unaware but which along with time and memory management forms part of the TOEIC test. The TOEIC far from being purely a test of language proficiency has, at the request of industry, been designed to test other important skills required in the professional environment including factors such as the “flight or fight “ response. These responses are important for a potential employer to identify in a non-native speaker of the language in the work place if he or she is to work efficiently.

This is tested in the 7-second gap that appears between questions in the listening comprehension section of the TOEIC test. 7 seconds is the scientifically proven time in which a non-stressed person will be able to respond spontaneously to a question and that response will generally be correct. If the candidate takes more than 7 seconds, either they do not know the answer, they give an incorrect response or go into the flight-or-fight response, or what I call the freeze factor kicks in. The freeze factor is something we have all witnessed both in and out of the classroom, where the students clams up when asked a question or freezes when required to answer the phone. This kind of response is of course no good to a potential employer who needs to identify those who can cope serenely and confidently with the task at hand as opposed to those who will leave the customer either with incorrect information or no information at all.

The emotional brain

So what is this fight-or-flight response and how can we help our students, if not to vanquish it at least to prepare for it? In his book Emotional Intelligence Daniel Coleman explains that the amygdala, the specialist part of the brain for emotional matters, works a little like an alarm when the brain is faced with a highly stressful situation. Talking about the amygdala he says: “When it sounds an alarm of say, fear, it sends urgent messages to every major part of the brain: it triggers the secretion of the body’s fight-or flight hormones, mobilizes the centers for movement, and activates the cardio-vascular system, the muscles and the gut. Other circuits from the amygdala signal the secretion of emergency dollops of the hormone norepinephrine setting the brain on edge. Additional signals from the amygdala tell the brainstem to fix the face in a fearful expression, freeze unrelated movements the muscles had underway, speed heart rate and raise blood pressure”, all elements that are hardly conducive to high test scores and confident test takers. Coleman goes on to explain:

“ Simultaneously , cortical memory systems are shuffled to retrieve any knowledge relevant to the emergency at hand, taking precedence over other strands of thought.” This has far reaching implications for the test taker who once in the amygada’s freeze grip will be unable to produce a response even if they want to. We obviously have to encourage our students to develop strategies for dealing with this, encourage them to practise by doing mock tests but, most effective of all, to increase their own competence and confidence by increasing their exposure to the target language. The more they are exposed to language spoken at natural speed and afforded opportunities within the training sessions for practice through use of pair and group work where they can help each other enacting suitable role play situations, the faster the “freeze” will thaw.

Stress busters

There are a number of simple ways in which you can help your student overcome their stress that are fun and easy to put into practice. Consider laughter, one of the most powerful and yet neglected stress busters known to man. Research has shown that apart from having the additional advantage of giving the body a “face lift”, laughing resulting from jokes and humour actually eases pain. According to Alan and Barbara Pease in their book Why Men Lie and Women Cry, “laughing instructs the brain to release endorphins into the blood stream (a chemical substance with a similar composition to morphine and heroine).” However in the case of endorphins there are no negative side effects and they come with the added advantage of being totally legal and free of charge. As in the case of physical exercise that I mentioned earlier, this hormone has a tranquillising effect on the body. Laughter has the potential to anaesthetise the body, builds the immune system ( people suffering from grief or depression frequently succumb to illness), but where it is of particular interest to us as trainers is that it aids memory, teaches more efficiently and extends life (less chance of your students kicking the bucket in the testing room). What more could you ask for? And yet there is more: humour heals. After laughter, the heart rate steadies, breathing deepens and the muscles relax. ( see the Pilgrims course FUN LAUGHTER AND LEARNING IN THE CLASSROOM )

So, how do you introduce this into the test room not renowned for its laughter-inducing environment? Not often do we hear raucous laughter emanating from within the confines of the exam room! I decided to put the theory into practice with my own trainees and as a first step and started during the preparation phase of their TOEIC test. While using the awareness raising exercises for part 2 of the TOEIC from The TOEIC Official Preparation Guide, I decided to introduce humour into the part where students are told to get into pairs and write their own test dialogues. I told them they all had to write a humorous dialogue. Whether the dialogue is funny or serious in content seems to make no difference as to the ability to acquire the necessary skills for dealing with that section of the test. However the advantage of being able to precondition or to a certain extent “deceive” the brain into seeing this part of the test in a positive light is certainly significant and students have told me that it has a knock-on positive effect the day of the test without undermining the serious nature of the task at hand.

Another technique is to ask each student to arrive a few minutes before the test starts, armed with an “email” joke (of which most people have a never-ending supply.) By exchanging a few jokes within the group and in English, they were not only limbering their brains up for the test but hopefully reaping the beneficial effects of laughter by releasing endorphins into their system.

How can we identify students in distress?

Not all students will suffer from pre-exam stress but it is always useful to be able to identify those that do. Body signals or body-language account for over 60% of messages sent between people, so although your students may not tell you they under-achieve in tests and exams, there are certain easily recognisable signs you can look out for. As Alan and Barbara Pease point out in their book Why Men Lie and Women Cry, increased hand-to –face gestures are evident when someone doubts or is uncertain. Eye and nose rubbing, ear pulling and collar tugging are common tell-tale signs. However one or other of these gestures in isolation may not indicate distress but a “cluster”, as they call it, will. Three signals indicate a problem, and for us as trainers that spells the wrong answer!

Neuro-linguistic programming workshops of the type given at IATEFL conferences by experts have been a useful source of information. We learn that increased eye blinking indicates increased tension. The direction the eyes move in when you ask a question, a theme also explored by Alan and Barbara Pease, shows which part of the brain a student is using – a signal almost impossible to fake. Right handed people recalling correct information engage the left brain and look to the right. When they DO NOT KNOW the answer they engage the right brain and look to the left and vice versa. This observation is not foolproof but is a strong indication none-the-less. Try it out on your own trainees and see if it works.
{ editorial note: the eye movement information offered here does not seem to me to derive from NLP)

The smell factor

What role, you may be wondering, does smell play in reducing exam stress? “The most ancient root to our emotional life”, as Daniel Coleman explains in Emotional Intelligence, “ is in the sense of smell or more precisely in the olfactory lobe, the cells that take in and analyse smell…….From the olfactory lobe the ancient centers for emotion began to evolve…… layer of cells took in what was smelled and sorted it out into the relevant categories: edible or toxic,…..enemy or meal. A second layer of cells sent reflexive messages throughout the nervous system telling the body what to do: bite, spit, approach, flee, chase……..Decisions like knowing what to eat and what to spurn were still largely through smell,…..and so discriminating good from bad.”

To a large extent this is still true today, the smell factor is the fastest most powerful trigger of neuro-responses to the brain and will generate a flood of memories both positive and negative accordingly. This has far reaching implications for the test room, which may or may not, depending on the “smell factor”, produce a positive or negative reaction in the test taker. I always suggest a pre-visit to the test room and where possible accompanied by a pleasant activity that will trigger a positive “déjà-sniffed” response on the day of the test that will act as a subconscious stress buster. In my article Ballet Shoes and Slippers I touched upon this subject. “Think back to any stressful situation you have been in yourselves. What calmed you down? My daughter asks me for one of my silk scarves with perfume dabbed on it if she is going away to unfamiliar surroundings or feeling under par. Smell is the fastest, most powerful trigger of neuro-responses. We have all experienced the flood of memories that can be sparked off by the smell of something familiar; a previous holiday, our grandmother’s house, the school sports hall. Smell can trigger both positive and negative effects within our system. My daughter says the familiar smell on my scarves calms and comforts her. If sniffing something agreeable (and legal!) can calm your nerves and up your test score then I say “vive l’odeur”!”

Final thoughts

To tell you the truth, I do not think I can write a conclusion to this article as I feel there is still much to be said and explored in the area of the psychology of test-taking. . I am discovering fresh evidence daily with my own students that I hope to bring to light in the future. Exam stress is a minefield of potential problems but which do have solutions. We cannot escape the tests and exams for a number of reasons:

  • Trainers need to test learner performance.
  • Today test results are more critical than ever.
  • Stakes are high
  • Good results are needed for university placement, recruitment, career development, promotion
  • Results affect careers. Careers affect life style
  • Test results exercise influence on motivation to learn (David Crystal Encyclopaedia of the English language)

However we can make the experience more pleasurable for our students. We owe it to our test takers to make sure they are fully prepared to meet the challenge. If we subscribe to the view that through a better understanding of the role emotional intelligence can play in combating exam stress and consequently ensuring better results, then we must admit that our current view of human intelligence and how it relates to test performance is too restricted. Our emotions, as Daniel Coleman demonstrates, play a far greater role in thought, decision making and individual exam success than has ever been acknowledged, especially if we accept that “emotional intelligence” includes self-awareness and impulse control, persistence, zeal and motivation, empathy and social deftness. These are the qualities that mark people who excel, whose relationships flourish and who are stars in the workplace”. With these qualities, our trainees can become stars in the test place.

Familiarise-Demystify-Relax/Energise- Induce positive thinking


  1. Ballet Shoes and Slippers First published in Humanising Language Teaching, Year 4, Issue 4, July 2002, Republished in ELI Resource 2 Year IX, Nov. – Dec 2002 – Jan 2003 ISSUE 2
  2. Why Men Lie and Women Cry Alan and Barbara Pease
  3. Emotional Intelligence Daniel Coleman
  4. The Encyclopaedia of the English Language David Crystal
  5. The TOEIC Official Preparation Guide
  6. 30 Days to the TOEIC TEST
  7. Vocable

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