De-Stressing Final Exams

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By Kathleen Laakso
Associate Dean of Students

“I’m not smart enough to do this!”
“I just want to come home!”
“Everybody in the class seems to understand but me!”


In 19 years in the academic support role at Rhodes, I have heard all of these laments from amazingly bright students. Academic strivers don’t have a corner on stress, of course, and none of us does our best thinking when we’re under pressure.

With experience, most people learn how to handle stressful situations. Many students are still in the process of gaining that experience and will turn to their parents for help.

What is the best way to help them as they approach finals?

  • The most important thing you can do is to normalize the experience. Everyone—even faculty and staff—experienced a stressful exam at some point in their career. Remind your students that they can and will survive if they stay calm and focused. Set a good example by staying calm and focused yourself.
  • Remind students of their strengths. Bring up situations from the past when they exceeded their own expectations. If they could do something they considered beyond their reach before, help them see how they might employ similar strategies and thinking to succeed now.
  • Remind them that your only expectation is that they do their best. Stay away from discussions of talent and specific gpa’s, which tend to lead to comparisons with others. Talk about effort and strategies instead.
  • Help them make the situation concrete and controllable. Listen and ask questions such as, “What resources could help you with that?” If they are not aware of the resources, you can gently remind them.
    • The Counseling Center staff are experts at helping students deal with stress anxiety.
    • Residence Advisors are always available to listen and are trained to connect students with other resources.
    • Professors at Rhodes have an open-door policy and welcome conversations with students. Many have exam reviews that are extremely helpful.
    • Most departments have peer tutors (PDF) who can help through the end of classes.
    • All students have access to a Moodle site on Academic Skills. The site includes discipline-specific learning strategies as well as test-taking tips. Read an excerpt from that site (PDF) on preparing for final exams. The tips are from an excellent book entitled Learning in College: I Can Relate by Mary K. Bixby.