GCSE and A level exams are creeping around the corner and many students are feeling the pressure. Whether we like it or not, exam anxiety is building and we need to be mindful of that.
What can teachers and parents do to support people taking exams?
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Getting back to normal
For the last two academic years students, in the UK at least, have not had to sit examinations as a result of COVID. This has meant that teachers were asked to assess students over the course of the school year and submit evidence of grades to exam boards for approval.
Now, things are ‘back to normal’, which means exams for GCSE and ‘A’ level students. But things are far from normal. Normally, students would have been in education and had continuous face to face teaching throughout their schooling. Students would have been sitting mock examinations as an entire cohort, rather than class-based assessments. Normally, students and their teachers don’t experience days or weeks at a time where they’re not allowed to attend school because of ill health. In a normal academic year, there are educational trips. There are more social events that are available for them. There might be holidays that aren’t at risk of being cancelled at the drop of a hat.
Nothing is normal yet for these students. Mental health is at the forefront of many conversations, and exam anxiety seems to be really high.
Exams are a part of life...
I can almost hear the armchair warriors now:
“Young people nowadays are too sensitive…” “Exams are a part of life, they just need to get on with it.”
Well, actually, no they’re not.
Exams might be a part of education, and developing exam technique might be important to get through to the end of an academic career (wherever that end may be), but they do not feature in many adults lives. They’re hotly debated in education circles, because they don’t always reflect the knowledge or the capabilities of the students. And when they’re over, a lot of the knowledge that students have spent learning is quickly forgotten.
Young people aren’t more sensitive than any other generation. They’re more capable at expressing their thoughts and feelings, they’re more emotionally aware. Society has shifted so that a conversation about emotions is no longer considered taboo.
What can teachers do to reduce exam anxiety?
Conversations with students are usually the best place to start. Different students might express anxiety in different ways: while one student might well revise constantly and suffer burn-out as a result of anxiety, another student might well ‘bury their head in the sand’ and stop engaging in lessons, homework or revision. Understanding what each individual student needs is important to support them all.
Obviously, this is easier in some schools than others. If you have a lot of students in a class, giving individual attention to every student suddenly becomes a mammoth and a seemly impossible task.
Sometimes, being mindful of work that they’re set (and when) can help reduce exam anxiety. Hopefully, there is some form of homework or revision timetable in place already. Use this to support the learners’ independent work and help students organise their own revision sessions and complete any tasks they need to.
Discuss with them what revision in your subject looks like. While revision techniques are usually covered in PHSE lessons, it’s often surprising how little they use this information when it comes to revising for exams. In the past, I’ve given students checklists and PowerPoints on ‘how to revise for English’. This has been useful because it breaks what they need to know into different tasks of differing lengths of time. Arming students with ideas of how to revise, as well as where to find information, revision materials, and their own targets usually gives them a clear direction for their revision and, therefore, they’re more likely to do it.
Ofqual have also written extensively on the subject, and have a variety of pedagogical ideas to support teachers.
What can parents do to reduce exam anxiety?
Students aren’t always the greatest when it comes to balancing their revision and their social activities.
For many students, exam anxiety leads them to over panic about exams and work until they burn out. With the exams still over a month away, this is not ideal!
Other students might be anxious about their exams and so plan on revising. There are colour coded revision time tables and lists of what needs to be learnt… but very little in the way of content gets covered.
Or, some students stop revising altogether. They go off to ‘take a break’ from revision after 15 minutes and come back 4 hours later.
Helping and supporting students to create a sensible, balanced timetable that works for them is one of the best ways to reduce exam anxiety. It is important that there is time set aside for family meals, social time with friends, opportunities to play sport or do some physical activities, as well as time for revision for key subjects. This balance is something that many students, particularly GCSE students, really struggle with.
What can students do to reduce exam anxiety?
Be open and honest with how you’re feeling and what support you need to do well.
Parents and teachers are all there and want the best for you. Listen to them and let them help.
While nobody can sit the exam for you, there is always a network of people to help you along the way.
Remember, there are other places you can go to get support.