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At the class quizzes or at the mid- or final exams, I can see that some students are too anxious and nervous. They are not really weak students but too much anxiousness brings their efficiency down and they even may fail their important exams. In one of our important exams I could see that a student was that much nervous that he could not really sit on his chair, another one was so sick that needed to go to the bathroom or see a doctor. This may happen once per year but seeing such uncomfortable students is so sad. I really feel that I have to help them as I am their teaching-assistant.

As a teaching-assistant, when I see that there are one or two nervous students at my class; if they feel they need to consult about their anxiety I try to calm them down before the exam by talking to them privately after the class and if they are good students, remind them that they are perfect students and should not allow nervousness to ruin their exam's mark; and explain their academic potentials and their perfect progress to the professor. Of course I don't have any knowledge about anxiety, so I don't talk about their nervousness problems and I ask them to see a doctor who can help them. I only try to talk and help them about their problems in the course I am teaching. If the student has not good academic progress and I see that his anxiety is because of his academic performance, I spend more time for them answering their questions in the office hours when I am at the university.

At the exam session, when I see such students; If they need and ask for something to eat to relieve their anxiety I try to bring them bottle of water and sugar to help them feel more comfortable and answer their questions more relaxed.

However, I can not really give them extra time to solve their questions as it may be not fair to other students sitting the same exam or help them giving some clues over questions. Also, I can not give them some extra mark because of their nervousness because I think it is not fair at all.

As lecturers, teachers or even TAs who may have experience about this; could you please share me your experience and what you did about such anxious students?

What do you do about such nervous students to calm down and feel better at the exam session?

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    I don't feel like there's anything that should be done. Stress is a part of life, even once we receive degrees. Public speaking, research papers, thesis defenses, business proposals, all of these are going to likely be stressful as well, and how we handle that is something most of us learn. – Compass Nov 5 '14 at 15:11
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    You might want to specify your country. I imagine social norms will differ from place to place. In the USA, your actions of providing individual students special treatment would be inappropriate, but perhaps not so in other countries. – WetlabStudent Nov 5 '14 at 17:35
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    @EnthusiasticStudent: in reality, the organization of classes and exams is different (and not only slightly different) from country to country. To give you an example, in Italy there are no TAs (at least not in the sense used in US) and exams, in technical universities, are frequently composed of a written part (which can last 2-4 h) and an oral part (0.5 h - 1 h). At the written exam, only the professor plus, sometimes, an assistant is present and students arrive at the class at the call time. So, if someone is nervous, nobody would notice nor care. – Massimo Ortolano Nov 5 '14 at 20:21
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    During the oral part, it's up to the professor to calm the student down if he or she is too nervous. But if a student is too nervous to speak or answer properly, he or she will typically fail the exam. It's part of life learning how to deal with stressful situations. – Massimo Ortolano Nov 5 '14 at 20:27
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    @EnthusiasticStudent: No, we don't have water in the office for guests or students (we typically keep a personal bottle): so, if I see a very nervous student at the oral exam, I may invite him or her to have a walk, go to the bar, relax and come back when they feel ready to go on (within, let's say, 20 min). Anyway, students who are so nervous that they can't handle the exam are rare: about one per year, in my statistics (just once I had a student who failed my exam for two years consecutively because she was too nervous). – Massimo Ortolano Nov 5 '14 at 20:39
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I appreciate the gestures but I don't generally agree with the stated actions:

I try to calm them down before the exam by talking to them privately after the class and reminding them that they are perfect students and should not allow nervousness to ruin their exam's mark

I would avoid doing that because it's borderline patronizing. It's impossible that all of them are perfect students and if you just talk to some of them who are nervous, that would not reflect well on the instructor from the angle of being objective and fair.

At the exam hour, when I see such students; I try to bring them some water and sugar to help them feel more comfortable and answer their questions more relaxed.

Also awkward. By doing so you're singling out the seemingly nervous students. I don't oppose distributing some candies/snacks before hand but I don't agree with delivering food and drink to students who look like nervous.


Here are what I usually do to lower their anxiety:

  1. Evaluate if examination is the best way of approaching the assessment, and if there are alternatives. Can the exam be distributed as three smaller tests? Weekly quizzes? Final project? I often use the students' likely career settings as a benchmark: Will they be more likely asked to write an analysis report with access to information, or trapped in a room to recite formula? etc.

  2. Allow a one-page, self-prepared notes. It's a good compromise between closed-book and open-book. The actual benefit, however, happens when they were preparing for this piece of notes, as they have to actively digest and evaluate the information.

  3. Incorporate questions that do have an absolute answer, but focus on showcasing thought process. Emphasize that there are some questions that have no absolute right or wrong answer, but merely to test the reasoning skills of the candidates.

  4. Play some soothing classical music in the background prior to the start of the exam, and then fade it down before the starting time. Bach's work well... Vivaldi's four seasons work nicely as well.

  5. Make some past questions available, or at least provide some mock example questions. This is to get rid of anxiety caused by unfamiliar format and types of questions.

  6. Progress from basic, memory-based questions to more elaborated questions. Try not to strike too hard at the beginning. Build up their confidence through recalling some facts/definitions.

  7. Clearly delineate the points allocated for each question. This is to ensure that they know they should stop before writing the 5th sentence for the 1/2 point.

  8. Lower the proportion of final grade attributed to exams. Avoid having final exams bearing too much weight.

  9. Invite seemingly collapsing students for a short break, and let them make up for the time afterwards. I have only done it once. The student was in serious distress: panting, red and teary eyes, heavy patches of sweat soaking through the shirt (room has AC.) I invited the student to go out for a chat, and the student immediately broke into loud crying once I closed the door. I and another TA gave the student some prep talk (aka, try your best, the past homework has shown that you can deal with the questions, etc.) and a 10-minute calm down. We let the student have 10 more minutes at the end. The student did manage to pass.

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    I'd add, that if you are going to give a timed in class test, and if you are going to release a practice test (i.e. mock example questions), you should encourage students to take the mock test for time to simulate the test environment. This will help them practice coping with the pressure of a timed test. Learning to cope with anxiety is often easier than trying to eliminate it. – WetlabStudent Nov 5 '14 at 22:34
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I'm writing as someone who is very nervous in exam conditions - though I'm e.g. perfectly fine giving a conference talk with a large audience and answering their questions. Also, you'd hopefully not be able to identify me as being nervous: I try very hard at least not to show it, and I'm told that I'm generally successful at that.

My recommendations have less to do with dealing with particular students but with general guidelines that I'd summarize as:
Be (or become) a good examiner, and get known for being professional and fair in your exams. Lots of nervousness is caused by the examiner having a reputation to be unpredictable, arbitrary or unfair

  • To put it drastically, make sure what you examine are the students' professional capabilities and only those: unless it is a practical course on psychological warfare, the exam should not measure the students' resistance to psychological attacks*.
    Counter example: I've been asked in one of my final oral exams "Now I have a question that I got in my PhD defense and also couldn't answer: ..."

  • Make sure your questions are well posed.

    • Do not ask questions that not only require the student to have the "professional knowledge" but also to be able to guess what piece of knowlege the examiner could possibly be driving at.
      Big alarm bells would be students asking back "Are you driving at XXX?" or the like - though you'd probably never get such a feed back from timid students. In written exams, an (also late) alarm sign would be if you encounter correct answers about different topics.
      However, knowing that such a problem exists already allows you to re-examine your questions.

    • Try very hard to avoid wrong or misleading questions. This will happen once in a while, but really try to catch such questions.
      As TA I once had to correct a question "Should this-and-that be done this way or that way?" where in fact each way was correct for different subgroups of this-and-that. Such a question has several undesirable consequences. One is: students who have at least an intermediate level of knowledge (e.g. who could correctly give examples for "When should this way be used?" and "When should that way be used?") would typically expect that the "or" is actually a XOR from the way this form of questions works in my culture (written answers, not multiple-choice). Unless they are so confident in their knowledge that they dare to answer "both" or "it depends", such a question causes unneccessary stress because students start questioning their (correct) knowledge during the exam.
      (As for the concrete situation, none of the > 100 students answered "both" or "depends", but a large number did not answer at all. The answer to "What answer does the professor want to hear?" was this way, which was also the predominant answer the students gave.)
      Having a buch of TAs doing the exam beforehand would probably have caught the problem.

  • Refrain from jokes and surprises.

    • I once had an important oral exam where the professor sat facing me across the table and an assistant sat beside me writing minutes. At some point the professor suddenly said that now they're changing roles and the assistant is going on with questioning me. IMHO that was a totally unnecessary cross questioning situation.
      Side note: I'd also avoid having examiner and minute writer sitting at 90° one right one left of the student. IMHO the "sitting at 90° relieves tension" advise doesn't hold for being "surrounded" at 90°.

    • Another counter-example: Oral exam about some legal stuff. Examiner declares at the beginning that he'll accept only answers as correct that literally cite the respective portion of the law. Explanations in own words will be counted as wrong. He'll give an allowance for the number of words that can be used for each answer (order of magnitude was 10).**
      (Just to be clear: this turned out not to be a joke)

    • I'd even be cautious with @Penguin_knight's classic music and at least tell them beforehand that you'll do that and for what purpose. People do get nervous also by what is meant to be a nice surprise.

    • Here's the one exam surprise I liked so far: typewriting class leading up to a certificate. The teacher explained that in her experience people are so nervous in the exam that the results are considerably worse than normal excercises (of the same form). She'd therefore "smuggle" the exam in someday without telling us so we'd think it was an excercise - and that's what she did: at some point she collected the excercises with "congratulations, you've just done the first part of your exam".
  • Be reasonably predictable in what you ask, i.e. keep inside the curriculum with the topics. This doesn't mean that you cannot or should not test the reasoning and transfer abilities of the students, but it should clearly be connected to the topic of the exam.
    Counter-example: one of the examiners for our 2nd year oral exams had a reputation that he'd e.g. ask about thermodynamics and chemistry of a supernova if his morning newspaper wrote something about supernovae. While his research focus was on astro-physico-chemistry, I still don't think that this was covered by the physical chemistry 101 curriculum.

  • I'd also consider it good to explain to the students what to expect.
    One of my final oral exams had reliably left anything that had been covered in the courses after ca. 5 min. Since then I know how a lemon must feel after squeezing, and I had no idea whether I had passed or not (gave lots of wrong answers, most of which I was able to correct at a second attempt, though). I got a mark a fraction below the best possible mark and the examiner afterwards told me that he examined me for the best mark due to my record and that he was sure I know what was covered in the courses so he needn't examine that. I'm not entirely sure, but I think it likely that having this explanation been at the beginning of the exam would have made the experience somewhat less unpleasant.

  • However, I don't see anything wrong with unusual (more realistic) exam settings if they are trained before:
    I once had a teacher who explained that she wants to train us for real life situations and that she'd therefore include lots of irrelevant information alongside with the relevant information so we could not guesstimate the correct calculation from the given values and that part of our exam was to extract the relevant information (this usually came in the form of a general purpose collection of tables we used for 2 years of courses). We did use the same material in the lecture.


* another type of course where I'd consider psychological stress (particularly as to answering fast) as adequate would be practical exams dealing with emergency situations. But then the course should have practically trained corresponding situations.

** This was not in a university setting but a certificate course with a kind of once-off customer situation: if you need the certificate you have to take one of these, but basically noone will ever have an occasion to go back there again.

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    +1 for many good suggestions. I'd be a little careful with sneaking the exam (or a portion of it) in among the regular class sessions, though. Students may miss a regular class with a minor problem, such as stomachache, car trouble, and so forth, when they would put forth every effort to be there regardless of the obstacles when they know it's exam day. – Scraping Infinity Nov 19 '14 at 19:45
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Your actions are well intentioned and I appreciate your nurturing nature. I wish academics were more like this sometimes. I think the way you attempt to ease students' nervousness may not lead to your desired outcome for all students.

"talking to them privately after the class and reminding them that they are perfect students and should not allow nervousness to ruin their exam's mark"

This can increase stress and anxiety. Anxiety is a complex phenomenon which is not usually solved by telling people to be less anxious. In fact, by pointing out that their nervousness can hurt their grade, you are giving them one more thing to be anxious about (their nervousness). In my personal experience, deemphasizing the grade improves anxiety more than telling them how harmful their anxiety is. Mention that college is about learning and that a little bit of anxiety is healthy and that in the long run grades don't matter too much. Just study hard and do your best.

when I see such students; I try to bring them some water and sugar to help them feel more comfortable and answer their questions more relaxed

This may be helpful for some but you again might be increasing some student's anxiety here. I get anxious before tests and I know that I would be embarrassed if the TA brought me water and candy and didn't do that for every other student. I'd feel singled out. In addition, it really isn't clear to me that sugar would decrease anxiety for students. Like anxiety, nutrition is complicated and others may react differently to sugar than you do. Also, you have to be concerned about allergies. You mention in your comment that the students ask for this. That definitely changes things, but I would avoid giving out anything to students who don't ask for it.

Talking with students who appear nervous after class is great, but I would shy away from lecturing them about anything related to how their anxiety affects their grade. Instead ask them how they feel before an exam? If they respond with something that concerns you, you can ask them if they have considered inquiring with student services about special exam accommodations (common in the USA). Remember that you are not a healthcare professional and it is potentially harmful for you to act too much like one. It is great that you show that you care about your students, but sometimes it is best to let the student talk to people who are more qualified to address these issues. You should be able to direct them to these people if they need it. Sometimes there are people in charge of "study skills", or "disability services" or a "learning skills center". Contact your department and seek these people out so you have the appropriate contacts available.

Note that some people have a lot of anxiety and don't visibly show it and others who look extremely anxious may actually be fine. I'd announce to the whole class "If you feel you get very anxious before exams and it affects your performance, feel free to schedule an appointment with me so we can talk about it."

  • Thank you for this answer. Of course I don't have any knowledge about anxiety, so I don't talk about their nervousness problems and I ask them to see a doctor who can help them. The only thing I consult with the nervous student is about their academic progress in the class in which I am teaching. – Enthusiastic Engineer Nov 6 '14 at 23:10

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