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Notes on Teaching and Learning

Motivating Students During End-of-Semester Stress

November 19, 2021
Haley Dutmer

Finals…*shivers*…As an undergraduate, semester after semester, I would approach finals week with anxiety and dread. I cared a lot about performing well, but somehow, despite my intense desire to excel, I found little motivation to study or work on papers and projects. 

My situation was not an uncommon one. Perfectionism, self-doubt, and anxiety can all lead students to avoid preparing for finals and even to disengage with school in general. 

As we transition to setting our students up for success on finals, it’s important to consider the role that self-efficacy (i.e., confidence in one’s own ability to succeed) plays in motivating students to complete challenging tasks. When students feel like they can’t succeed at a task even at their best, they often feel little motivation to try–even if they find the task valuable. 

There are plenty of reasons why a student may lack confidence in their own ability. Students may have limited prior experience with tasks or material. Or, they may have internalized the weight of stereotypes that threaten their confidence (“I’m not good at math”). 

No matter the reason, the fact is that high-stakes assessments can drastically increase student stress and cause confidence to plummet. But with some small steps, you can help ease your students’ stress and boost their confidence to get them to the finish line.

  1. Encourage a Growth Mindset: A growth mindset is the view that talents are developed through hard work and practice. Contrast this with a fixed mindset where learning is an all-or-nothing game: either you’re the type of person who gets this stuff or you’re not. When you talk to your students about finals, let your students know that you believe in them: “If you work hard, you can succeed on the final.” Additionally, offer students study tools to improve the skills they need for the final (like a study guide, practice problems, or study groups) and, if you can, offer extra office hours to accommodate student questions.
  2. Promote Metacognition: A student may feel like even if they work hard, they still won’t perform well enough. Here it can be helpful to get students to recognize their own growth up to this point. (When students reflect on their own learning process, this is called metacognition.) Give students a chance to journal about their learning struggles in the class and how they overcame them: What was difficult at first, but became easier? What did you do to improve? When students recognize their achievements throughout the semester they build confidence that they can succeed again.
  3. Offer Opportunities for Student Control: When a student has some control over their situation, it reduces their stress. For a final exam, allow students to select, say, three out of five essay questions instead of having to answer all the questions on the exam. Or, allow students to select their paper topic from a list of options. You can also let students choose a due-date from a list of options to allow some flexibility during a busy time.
  4. Prioritize Transparency: Review your final assignment description. Are the learning goals clearly stated so students understand why the assignment is important to their learning? Are the instructions clear so they know what is required of them? Do you provide clear guidelines for how the assignment will be assessed? Transparent assignments leave less ambiguity for students and less ambiguity = less stress.

If you try nothing else, even a simple peptalk that highlights the above strategies can go a long way: “Students, you can do this. You have done this. Here’s how you can prepare…and I’m here to help.”

Further reading

Motivation and Learning, Kaneb Center for Teaching Excellence.

Motivating Students, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman, (2010). “What Factors Motivate Students to Learn?” Ch. 3 in How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. 

McKeachie (2006). “Motivation in the College Classroom” Ch. 12 in McKeachie’s Teaching Tips.Hulleman, C. S., Barron, K. E., Kosovich, J. J., & Lazowski, R. A. (2016). “Student motivation: Current theories, constructs, and interventions within an expectancy-value framework.” In A. A. Lipnevich et al. (Eds.), Psychosocial Skills and School Systems in the 21st Century. Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.