Managing Exam-Related Stress

“Truly being ready means understanding what could go wrong— and having a plan to deal with it.” – Col. Chris Hadfield


When dealing with acute fears, such as those emanating from exams which cause anxiety, I immediately think about professionals who deal with the most extreme fears I can think of: astronauts. In his book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, astronaut Chris Hadfield observes that in his experience, “fear comes from not knowing what to expect and not feeling you have any control over what’s about to happen.” Much of an astronaut’s training is spent conquering fear by visualizing problems that could happen at any point during a mission and learning to solve those problems. In fact, Hadfield says that a true worst-case scenario is the scenario that hasn’t been planned for. The same is true for students feeling test anxiety. To help manage stress related to taking tests, I help my students learn how to deal with problems like an astronaut.

Why Do We Experience Stress?

First, let’s take a moment to examine why preparing for the worst can eases anxiety. A helpful (and empirically based) paradigm for looking at stress is the psychosocial or threat/challenge hypothesis of stress. This paradigm suggests that a test has a specific set of demands, and a person believes they have a certain set of resources (including knowledge or skills) with which to confront those demands. If a student believes their resources exceed the demands they face, they will look at the test as a challenge that can be overcome. If a student believes their resources are insufficient to meet the demands, they will look at the test as a threat. Psychological and physiological experiments on this model have shown that there are both mental and physical effects of appraising a test as a challenge or a threat. This is relevant in the academic life of a student because challenges are met with confidence and increased cognitive ability while threats are met with anxiety and decreased cognitive ability.

Combating Stress by Confronting Potential Issues

With the goal of combating exam-related stress, it is crucial to foresee the demands of an exam and study in a way that provides sufficient resources for each of these demands. There may be no profession more adept at this skill than astronauts! So let’s do what astronauts (and their myriad of support staff) do: imagine the worst.

Take for example a physics exam. There are many ways to imagine a physics exam could going wrong. However, by listing all the potential issues, a student can plan solutions ahead of time for each of them, convincing themselves they have the resources to meet any demands of an exam. Here are examples for planning for common negative scenarios:

  • Don’t understand a concept: I will do many practice problems to find these areas ahead of time and read the textbook/seek help from teacher to clarify concepts.
  • Forget a concept: I will make flashcards summarizing each concept and consistently quiz myself in order to maximize the probability of recalling a concept on the exam.
  • Confuse a concept: I will focus on related concepts that are likely to be confused and isolate the details that will allow me to distinguish between them.
  • Forget an equation: I will make flashcards of the equations and try to truly understand the relationships behind them so that I can remember the common sense behind the equation.
  • Confuse an equation: I will spend extra time studying the distinctions between similar equations.
  • Make a clumsy mistake: I accept that I make these mistakes, acknowledge that it comes from an insecurity that causes me to hurry through the ‘easy’ parts of problems instead of doing due diligence and I will compensate by taking a little extra time on the ‘easy’ stuff.
  • Get confused by a problem: I recognize this will happen, and will calmly reread the problem, and maybe draw a diagram.
  • Run out of time: As I study, I will make note of the types of problems that take me the longest, why they take me the longest, and find strategic ways to improve my efficiency.
  • Need to go to the bathroom: I will limit fluid intake before the exam.


By brainstorming the potential issues confronting them, students can walk into an exam knowing that not only have they studied the material, but that they are prepared to confront the worst case scenario. And just as astronauts have help (veteran astronauts and other space-science instructors), students can also have help (such as teachers at school, parents, and seasoned tutors).

So next time you’re in a tough spot, it’s usually a good idea to ask yourself: What would an astronaut do?


Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything. Little, Brown and Company (2013).

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