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Final exams can prompt higher levels of stress among college students.

The stress of needing to perform compounds with the truncated sequence of multiple exams. Yet when I speak with students experiencing stress as an academic coach, they often see stress as a solely negative phenomenon.

Yet, stress and resilience coexist in a healthy person. We can’t know we’re resilient until we encounter stress and move through it.

Read on for three strategic, and resilient, ways your student can take on the stress of finals week.

1) Manage Your Stress; Don’t Let It Manage You

“I am not in imminent danger.”

This is what I told myself recently when I made a mistake and felt the kind of stress students sometimes talk about in relation to classes. It’s often called “fight or flight.”

The function of fight or flight means that when we encounter circumstances we perceive as a threat, the brain and body respond by releasing adrenaline that prompts us to either tackle the situation or flee. The tricky thing is, the body and the hardware in our brains don’t distinguish between a hungry wild animal that just jumped in my path (an imminent threat to life) and a mistake– or a final exam, for example.

Also, and unfortunately, the brain can’t scaffold new learning during fight or flight stress as well as it can in a relaxed state. The brain is flooded with adrenaline. Imagine what it’s like to ‘flood’ a glass; there’s no room left for anything else. Similarly, the capacity of the brain is occupied with responding to stress, so higher-level functions, like committing knowledge to long-term memory, is less of a priority biologically. Thus, cramming overnight for a final exam while in a state of stress is far less valuable than studying over a few days or weeks in a relaxed state.

Thus, instead of letting stress set the agenda for their finals week, encourage your student to plan for the stress and to use it. Tell them to accept that some stress (sometimes called performance anxiety) is helpful when it’s time to demonstrate ability. It helps us focus and can even improve outcomes when paired with the effort to be excited. It’s a kind of energy that’s easy to use. And thankfully, we can learn to recognize stress and its sources in order to manage it.

2) Clarification and Manageable Steps are Key

When your student feels inclined to avoid studying or to procrastinate, encourage them to consider whether they know exactly what their next steps will be. When a task is perceived as high stakes, it is stressful to not know what the best next steps are. It is appropriately stressful when we don’t know how to succeed on a high-stakes task. Yet if we know what needs to be done, we can break ‘success’ down into smaller parts. Taking on smaller parts of a project then becomes doable and can build our confidence.

If your student is avoiding studying for finals, ask if they know what will be covered on the exam or what format the test will be. If they don’t know, chances are they could get this information from the syllabus, the professor, a teaching assistant or from a peer—especially if they ask a few days before the exam.

3) Each Exam is Unique; Treat Them Accordingly 

Your student probably won’t take final exams that are in the same exact format for many of their classes throughout college. Why? Because the learning goals for each class are different, and therefore the methods for evaluating students’ learning need to be different as well.

One of the most strategic ways your student can prep for a final is to start by thinking about what they’ll be asked to do on the final (i.e. what kinds of questions they’ll be asked) and work back from there. For example, prepping for a multiple-choice exam requires memorization and possibly association of knowledge-points, whereas prepping for a long-form written exam may involve designing an outline for possible essay questions and then collecting relevant information for easy recall.

Here again, professors and teaching assistants are likely the best sources for figuring out what kinds of tasks will be required on a final. Once your student knows how they will be tested in each class, they can study for each exam accordingly.

In addition to these three ways to help your student counter the stress of finals week, remind them that learning is an uncomfortable process. It is difficult to scaffold new knowledge. Help them remember why they enrolled and to see that stress can be managed, and sometimes even useful.

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Dr. Jennifer Tharp is an alumna of Azusa Pacific University where she earned a Ph.D. in Higher Education. Dr. Tharp teaches at the graduate level and consults nationally in the area of student success. Visit Dr. Jennifer Tharp's website.