SecondaryAssessmentHealth & Wellbeing

Exam stress – Strategies for supporting student wellbeing

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Students’ exam anxiety can be self-defeating – which is why we all need to help students keep exam stress at bay…

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As we gear up for another exam season, read some proactive strategies for alleviating the burden of exam stress and fostering a supportive environment for your students…

What schools can do to keep exam stress at bay

Teenage girl resting on a selection of revision materials, representing exam stress

Abbey Jones looks at how to help students feel relaxed, supported and secure in their wellbeing as exam season unfolds…

As exam season approaches, many schools will see heightened stress levels among their students.

That’s understandable, of course, given that these young people will have worked hard to get to this point. They want to give the best possible account of themselves throughout their assessments.

At Stephen Perse Cambridge, we take great care in creating an environment during exam season that promotes a positive and optimistic approach.

Our ambition is to provide a supportive and relaxed culture during the exam term that helps students feel able to rise to the challenge of the assessments, without experiencing any detrimental impact to their wellbeing.

Cumulative experience

Creating a support system that is available to every student throughout their school experience, not just during exams, has been the cornerstone of this work.

Every summer during their time at Stephen Perse Cambridge Senior School, students in all year groups get to experience assessments. We conduct these with an age-appropriate level of formality. They become increasingly similar each year to the summer exams they’ll eventually sit, culminating in their Y11 GCSE mocks.

These assessments mirror the experience of the real thing as closely as possible. It’s a process that ensures students are well-practised at preparing for, and working through the exam period. They’ll develop techniques and build resilience to help manage the stress of exams throughout their school careers.

We prioritise open communication with our parent community around mental health to try and reduce any associated stigma.

We want parents to feel they can share any concerns about their child’s wellbeing with us. This is so that we can best support their children throughout their whole school experience.

One way in which we do this is by keeping parents informed about our various initiatives in this area – from wellbeing talks, to new PSHE modules.

This way, parents can better understand the school’s ethos when it comes to wellbeing in general. This sets the tone for our approach to the increased stress of exam periods.

Flexible independence

A flexible study leave period before GCSEs and A Levels is also essential in empowering students to prepare and revise in a way that suits them.

During study leave, our students can choose the learning environment which works best for them. This might be a silent study room, group work spaces at school, the family dining table, their bedroom, the local library or a mix of all the above.

Staff across all subjects hold optional revision lessons that students on study leave can attend. They are available to answer any emailed questions from students as they revise.

At this time, promoting students’ wellbeing is just as important as their revision’s content coverage. That’s why we deliver workshops on the challenges of exam season, such as what they should expect on the day and how to manage exam anxiety.

Looking ahead

Students are also strongly encouraged to set aside time and space for their hobbies and other interests, plan in adequate breaks and continue socialising with friends and family.

One key piece of advice we remind all students of is that no matter how they feel an exam went, once it’s done they need to put it behind them and look ahead to the next day.

Staff need to reassure students that feeling anxious ahead of exams is completely normal. It doesn’t necessarily constitute an anxiety disorder or similar.

These conversations don’t have to take the form of a PSHE talk. Our pastoral staff and subject teachers all regularly encourage open conversations at all times with students around how they’re coping during exam term.

At Stephen Perse Cambridge, we’re keen for subject teachers, form tutors and heads of department to be present on exam days. This is so that students are reminded that we’re behind them.

Those final words of encouragement really can make all the difference to their mindset as they head into that exam room.

Abbey Jones is senior deputy head 11-18 at Stephen Perse Cambridge Senior School; for more information, visit stephenperse.com


How an ‘examiner’s mindset’ can help your GCSE prep

Students’ exam anxiety can be self-defeating. That’s why schools should have their own GCSE prep strategies ready to go, says Stephen Caldwell…

The weeks and months leading up to examinations are filled with excitement and opportunity. However, there’s also anxiety, fear and exam stress.

Pupils ride this emotional rollercoaster several times in their schooling career. But teachers endure it year after year, as they enter one cohort of students after another for their GCSEs and A Levels.

As a teacher myself, I was always struck by the way exam stress would inhibit my students’ ability to learn in the lead-up to tests.

It becomes a self-fulfilling cycle. Pupils are nervous about taking their exams and the exam stress consumes them. This makes it difficult to study and prepare, which serves to only intensify that fear even further.

Exam stress is rooted in uncertainty and fear of the unknown. By demystifying exams with an examiner’s insight, and helping students replace their fear with self-belief, teachers can create calm, confident and capable students who are fully ready to tackle their examinations.

The examiner’s mindset

It was once commonplace for examiners from various exam boards to visit schools and share their wisdom with both pupils and teachers. They gave them the inside track on what examiners would be looking for.

As this practice has gradually fallen out of fashion, so too has the proportion of teachers who, like myself, opt to also work as examiners.

This is a natural consequence of the mounting pressure on the teaching workforce. Unfortunately, it means that we’re steadily losing this form of ‘examiners’ knowledge’ from schools.

Pupils benefit from hearing directly from examiners because they can dispel some of the mystery that shrouds exams.

Pupils will be far less afraid to take their exams if they know exactly what skills are being tested in the questions, how the marking scheme works and how to utilise their knowledge to maximise their marks.

Being a GCSE English examiner enabled me to dispel these mysteries for my own class. Once I was able to explain to pupils how they could score 16 marks in the first seven sentences of their GCSE creative writing paper, their fear was quickly replaced by excitement.

They became alive to the possibilities of what they could create, confident in the knowledge that success was perfectly achievable.

“They became alive to the possibilities of what they could create”

‘Insider’ insight

That same principle applies to all subjects. In maths, most students will grow impatient and disheartened when unable to arrive at an immediate answer. They may stop attempting the question.

Once we unveil the way examiners award marks, pupils will soon learn that the answer is actually just one small component of what the question is really asking.

The key to confidence in maths lies in beginning with what a student already knows. This is a process that can begin by, say, labelling a diagram and engaging with the material presented, without worrying about the question itself. With this first step complete, the path to the answer will eventually reveal itself. This is a far more comfortable approach for pupils to pursue than the ‘all or nothing’ alternative.

The priorities and practicalities at play within the education system may have changed. But it’s still possible for schools to gain some level of ‘insider’ insight by inviting examiners to visit. Alternatively, seek out specialist support with the aid of your National Tutoring Programme funding.

Strategic revision

Once you’ve lifted the veil, you can embed these exam preparation principles in a strategic revision programme that teaches pupils how to apply their existing knowledge of the curriculum to meet the examiner’s requirements.

Teachers can design this revision programme using data based on target grades, mock or weekly test data, and question level analysis, all grounded in forensic knowledge of the different exam boards.

Crucially, a school-designed revision programme should never include ‘cramming’. The aim isn’t to simply recall as many facts as possible. Instead it’s to gradually consolidate classroom learning, provide practice in applying this knowledge to an exam paper and address any anxieties head on.

Regular mock testing is an essential component of revision. Frequent testing will provide pupils with opportunities to learn how to maximise their chances of success. The experience will also allow them to develop resilience, learn how to persevere when a first attempt proves unsuccessful, and develop their own strategies for overcoming challenges.

Harness exam stress

Teachers can facilitate this process by sandwiching mock exams with pre- and post-assessment activities. Set aside time for pupils to self-reflect and self-identify their needs, thereby making them partners in the revision process. This, above all, enables pupils to develop the self-confidence they’ll need to harness feelings of exam stress towards positive ends, and potentially even thrive on being tested.

Mock testing also gives teachers valuable insights into pupils’ strengths and areas for development. This can in turn help to identify problem areas across the cohort and support targeted intervention.

It’s an unfortunate reality that as things currently stand, ‘failure’ is essentially baked into our education system. We know that examiners will award around a third of pupils grades 1, 2 and 3 in English and maths before students have taken any GCSE papers.

This means that every year a choice is made to fail a third, in order for two thirds to pass. It’s a system that contributes to a cycle of low self-esteem that’s particularly pernicious for disadvantaged pupils, who are overrepresented in that third who ‘fail’.

One of the most powerful ways of supporting students is to demonstrate your total and unconditional faith in their ability to achieve success. Constant positive reinforcement over time, coupled with a clear structure for revision and techniques to aid effective study, can help to break down students’ self-imposed barriers. It can enable them to unlock their true potential.

Success within reach

Over the years, my colleagues and I began making our classroom spaces available to students on exam days. This was so that they could have a place in which to chat and mentally prepare themselves.

Some pupils would use the time to ask us for advice. But our main role was to provide a smiling, positive presence. It was reassuring for students to simply know that we were ‘in it with them’. And that we’d be waiting for them on the other side to hear about their experiences.

There are many ways of providing this kind of support. But no matter what form it takes, demonstrating that you care and reinforcing that positive relationship, right up until the very end, is vital.

A calm, confident and capable student is one who will walk into an examination room knowing exactly what’s needed from them and how to deliver it. No amount of cramming the week before an exam can create this mindset; in anything, that will only serve to hinder it.

Exam confidence is the product of constant practice, relentless support, hard-won self-belief and above all, a detailed knowledge of the examiner’s mindset as they pick up their marking pen and open their first exam paper.

This confidence is within reach for each and every student. And with it comes the ability to achieve and succeed in their exams and beyond.

Stephen Caldwell is a former teacher and GCSE examiner, and co-founder of Impress Education; for more information, visit impress.education

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