Brain science: the answer to helping pupils cope with exam stress

As assessments approach, exam pressure can block memory when students need it most. Here’s the neuroscience behind boosting test performance


Exam season can be especially stressful for children in secondary school; many of their high-brain neural networks, which manage emotions such as stress, won’t have been built yet.

Neuro-imaging research shows that stress blocks communication from the upper cognitive brain down to the brain’s lower core, which is more emotionally reactive. This means that just when children need it most, they have limited access to the upper-brain regions that helpself-control, and access to their high-brain cortex where the memories they need are stored. Under pressure students can become emotional and find it hard to remember vital information.

Animals have a similar response to fear, which puts their lower brains in control. That is when we see animals go into automatic fight, flight, or freeze survival reactions. This is useful for survival, but when it happens to the human brain we lose touch with our ability to think before acting, or to respond effectively to questions.

But neuroscience can also help solve this problem. Understanding more about how their brains work enables students to develop techniques for remembering and accessing information when they need it.

How to help students de-stress

Before starting a test, get your pupils to visualise their own successful performance. This activates the memory circuits that will be called upon to answer the questions in the test, just as visualising a tennis swing or soccer kick activates the critical motor brain networks.

Also try practising relaxing rituals with students (mindfulness strategies, calming breathing, stress-busting visualisations) so these are readily available for them to activate immediately before or during tests when they are feeling stressed. This can be as easy as telling a joke, or relatable personal anecdote about your own exam experiences.

Reinforce test-taking tips you’ve previously shared with them too. Two key lessons include:

  1. If you don’t know an answer, go on to the next one. You may find information that triggers related memories in other questions.
  2. Don’t just select the first answer that seems right, because there may be a better one further down inside your head.

Finally, remind students that they are far greater and know much more than this specific test evaluates to reinforce their confidence about what they have learned. Remind them that a single test only measures how much they remember about the specific questions and not the wealth of knowledge they have acquired that was not selected for test questions. Let them see all the things you have accumulated that demonstrate what they do know – such as their homework, reports, group projects, quizzes and your notes about the good comments they made in class or when you visited their groups.

Help  students remember information

Much of the curriculum on which students are tested requires things to be remembered. Learning strategies that help connect new and prior knowledge makes the tedious job of remembering bits of information easier. Additionally, information linked to a child’s personal interests or something they recognise can help them remember things for longer, and prevent them forgetting what they have learned immediately after an exam.

Memory is constructed through pattern matching. This requires activation of neural circuits related in some way to the new learning, allowing new input to link into long-term memory circuits.

Teachers know what their students have learned, and sometimes incorrectly assume that the connections will be apparent to them. Without the more mature skills such as deductive reasoning, analysis and conceptual thinking, younger students need guidance to link the new with the known.

There are many ways in which you can help them. For example, you can use bulletin boards and discussions before new instruction to remind children what they have already learnt about a topic. Using graphics, including leaf diagrams and timelines, can also be helpful. Another handy trick is summarising learning in a child’s own words and then getting them to teach each other through stories and skits.

Reading important passages or children’s review notes aloud adds auditory memory networks to the visual input of the words they read.

Parents can reinforce learning by linking the topics studied to related photos or videos of family trips, objects they own made in countries the students are studying, or by reading favourite stories that relate to topics in science, history, and maths .

Parents can also help increase memory bridges by relating the class learning to their children’s interests. If their children are interested in local sports teams, directed questions can boost memory of new learning. “If you were the coach of (fill in team name here) how would you use (the scientific principle just learned) to help your team win?”

Final thoughts

The knowledge gained from brain research, when applied to learning, can help you energise and enliven your students’ memories. By helping them actively connect with the subject matter, they will have achieved something far more valuable than rote recall. By using your students’ prior knowledge, related memory banks, interests and learning strengths you’ll guide their brains to construct durable, long-term, efficiently retrieved memory – for the test and beyond.


Association of Catholic School Principals Conference, Dubbo 2015



Last week I attended this conference in Dubbo under the theme “Encountering new horizons”. I was privileged to here from many learned academics whose work I have drawn from in the past such as Professor Dean Fink (from Ontario Canada) and Valerie Hannon (Innovation Unit UK).  We were all inspired by Bishop Vincent Long van Nguyen, OFMConv, who is an auxiliary Bishop in Melbourne. He was born in 1961 in Vietnam and escaped as a boat person in 1980, eventually arriving in December 1981. In 1983 he became a Conventual Franciscan Friar and commenced his studies for the priesthood in 1984. He has had the most amazing life journey and he challenged us to really reflect on the way we deal with displaced people who are keen to make a new life in new country, free from terror and political unrest.

Bishop Vincent called us to consider a RADICAL COMMITMENT TO JUSTICE. I include an excerpt of his address.


The question “who is our neighbour?” is thus understood within that broader vision of life which the Gospel addresses to all, but especially those who are deprived of it. The “neighbours” in this context are the refugees, the asylum seekers, the sex abuse victims, the gay and lesbian people and anyone else who suffer prejudice, discrimination and dehumanising stereotype. As the parable of the Good Samaritan subtly points out, it is the holders of the tradition who are often guilty of prejudice, discrimination and oppressive stereotype, the Church today needs to examine its own attitudes and actions towards the

victims of injustice and adopt what I would call a seamless garment approach. We cannot be a strong moral force and an effective prophetic voice in society if we are simply defensive, inconsistent and divisive with regards to certain social issues. We cannot talk about the integrity of creation, the universal and inclusive love of God, while at the same time colluding in the ill-treatment of racial minorities, women and homosexual persons. This is particularly true when the Church has not been a shining beacon and the trail-blazer in the fight against inequality and intolerance. Rather, it has been driven involuntarily into a new world where many of the old stereotypes have been put to rest and the identities and rights of the marginalised are accorded justice, acceptance, affirmation and protection in our secular and egalitarian society.

Like most of you and the Catholic world, I am greatly encouraged by the example and leadership of Pope Francis. His abandonment of the unnecessary worldly trappings associated with the papacy is a challenge to all of us to divest ourselves of clericalism and return to the purity of the Gospel. His constant call to the church to be less concerned with itself and to be more outward looking encourages us to walk with our people in the ambiguities and complexities of their lives. The self-referential church steeped in a culture of splendour is in stark contrast with the church of the poor and for the poor. In one of his interviews on a rather thorny issue of homosexuality, Pope Francis says that we must always consider the person, because – I quote “when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?” It seems to me that the Pope has more than moved away from the approach of condemnation and judgement. He has refocused on the proclamation of God’s love for the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised; he has firmly placed the pastoral emphasis on the dignity of every person; he has committed the Church to the way of engagement, affirmation and compassion which is at the heart of the Gospel.

The Church can only be the conduit of compassion and speak the language of hope to a broken humanity when it truly personifies powerlessness and stands where Christ once stood, that is, firmly on the side of the outcast and the most vulnerable. 9 Catholic schools are premised on the fundamental dignity of each and every individual person. They are charged with a special mandate to offer hope to those who are disadvantaged and this special attention for the neediest is a cherished part of the Australian Catholic school story.

In reading the signs of the times, we are particularly challenged to be places which are deeply rooted in the Gospel values and where the radical vision of fullness of life for the poor and marginalised is fully embraced. The challenge of Pope Francis for the Church to be bruised, wounded and hurt because of its daring commitment to the vulnerable is poignant to us Catholic educators. To be “neighbour” to those who are on the margins of society even at the cost of our own success and power remains the fundamental Gospel imperative.

In summary, I believe we are living a time of grace and hope precisely because this fallow time allows us to rid ourselves of what is unworthy of Christ and to grow more deeply in our identity and mission as his disciples. Hence, it is the time to reclaim for the Church:

  • Less a role of power, dominance and privilege but more a position of vulnerability and powerlessness
  • Less an enclosure for the virtuous but more an oasis for the weary and downtrodden
  • Less an experience of exclusion and elitism but more an encounter of radical love, inclusiveness and solidarity
  • Less a leadership of control and clericalism but more a diakonia of a humble servant exemplified by Christ at the Last Supper
  • Less a language of condemnation but more a language of affirmation and compassion
  • Less a preoccupation for its own maintenance but more a concern for the kingdom of God


Despite all appearances to the contrary, I firmly believe that we are on the threshold of renewal and transformation. The Vatican Council set in motion a new paradigm that cannot be thwarted by fear and paralysis. That new paradigm is one that is based on mutuality not exclusion, love not fear, service not clericalism, engagement with the world not flight from or hostility against it, incarnate grace not dualism. The Holy Spirit is at work even at a time of great anguish. The spirit is leading us on and we are not afraid of the future. In fact, we have every reason to believe that the future will be even better than the past. Our task is to keep the amber burning bright and to pass it on to the next generation. May we be open to the guidance of the spirit as we journey with each other and together meet the challenge of delivering new life for the world.


                                                          A Simple Prayer for our Pontiff

PopeLord, source of eternal life and truth, give to Your shepherd, the Pope, a spirit of courage and right judgement, a spirit of knowledge and love.

By governing with fidelity those entrusted to his care may he, as successor to the apostle Peter and vicar of Christ, build Your church into a sacrament of unity, love, and peace for all the world.

We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.



Prayers are called for:


  • The Krstevski family (Monica 11, Gabriella 7) who have lost their grandfather;
  • Roseanne Bennett, our College receptionist, who lost her mother this week;
  • Lynda Fleming, Teacher Librarian, who is recovering from extensive arm and shoulder surgery following a fall at the College last week.
  • The Canestro family (Sofia, Year 8) who have experienced the loss of a husband, grandfather and great-grandfather recently.  We offer condolences to the family.
  • The Shade family (Jasmine, Year 10) whose uncle sadly passed away.
  • For all of the family members we know that are in hospital, both students and staff.


Should any member of our community wish for us to pray for your family for any reason, please do not hesitate to send an email to or




Our mantra:

“Girls can do anything.
Bethany girls can do everything!*
(*except divide by zero)”
Vicki Lavorato