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Professors can help ease college students’ stress when facing final exams by helping them make sure they are prepared.

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The end of the calendar year signals the holiday season, colder weather for most of the U.S. and increased stress for students as they prepare for end-of-term exams.

A summer 2023 Student Voice survey by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse found 56 percent of students experience chronic stress, defined as a consistent sense of feeling pressured and overwhelmed over a long period of time. Six in 10 respondents have experienced acute stress, or a dramatic physiological and psychological reaction to a specific event.

Stress around exams was listed as the top issue by respondents, with 59 percent of students rating this time as stressful, followed by the pressure to do well (42 percent) and balancing school and other obligations (40 percent).

Higher education practitioners should have a role in helping students succeed in their academic pursuits and decreasing their stress, survey respondents believe. Here are four initiatives faculty and staff members can consider this finals season.

  1. Teach successful learning interventions

Some students can be underprepared for academic life in college, so they may need help learning effective methods of retaining and comprehending material. First-generation students in particular may have low belief in their academic skills in relation to monitoring thoughts and behaviors, wrote Pola Ham, assistant professor of occupational therapy at Touro University School of Health Sciences in New York, in a recent opinion piece.

Seven learning techniques practitioners can pass on to students include the Pomodoro technique, retrieval practice, spacing effect, interleaving, elaborative interrogation, dual coding and concrete examples, Ham wrote.

  1. Highlight ideal studying environments

Beyond knowing how to study, students may need a quiet or designated study space to learn best.

Colleges and universities can highlight quiet spaces on and around campus to assist students in finding a place to work. The University of Maryland at College Park has a quiet study space webpage that allows students to filter by indoor or outdoor spaces or search buildings for rooms that could fit their needs. The website also highlights furnishings and hours and gives the exact room location.

Boston University student desk assistants in the Center for Career Development created a study space guide in 2021, highlighting available spaces and hours for learners in the residence halls, libraries and lounges and nearby public cafes. The guide also has a key denoting if the space is suitable for group work, requires residential key-card access or sells food and drinks.

  1. Provide study materials and exam resources

One way to help students as they prepare to take a final exam is allowing students to write notes to reference during the test.

Nancy S. Schorschinsky, a professor of mathematics at Pennsylvania State University, allows her students to bring one page of one-sided notes into exams. Schorschinsky conducted a class survey to understand how students used their note sheets and the impact it had on stress and found:

  • One hundred percent of students used a note sheet for at least one exam, and 75 percent used notes for every exam. About three in four students (73 percent) prepared their note sheet as they reviewed for the exam, and 20 percent wrote up notes the day of the exam.  
  • Nearly all students (96 percent) said the note sheet helped prevent them from making a few mistakes or reassured them they were not making mistakes.  
  • Over half of students said it helped them feel much more confident and calmer, and about one in four said it helped prevent them “from completely going blank with anxiety.”  

The survey proved to Schorschinsky that the notes only benefited students’ exam performance and their confidence and could not replace prior learning of the material. The note sheet also improved student-instructor relationships and reminded students of real-life experiences, where resources will be available for them to use on the job.

  1. Create a study group

Study groups can provide students with a collaborative space to learn material and grow with their peers.

Ashley Flood, now a student success coach at Purdue Global, created a study group for a developmental mathematics class while working as a student success coach at Northwood University. Research shows students who fail a developmental course will affect completion rates and student swirl, but study groups can help raise students’ self-esteem.

Flood’s group met twice a week, sometimes more often prior to exams, and worked through problems to understand foundational concepts. Students also learned effective study strategies, the importance of a growth mind-set and the value of forming a study group.

Do you have an academic success tip that might help others encourage student success? Tell us about it.

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