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

Photo of girl studying at desk, looking anxious

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

Stephen Caldwell
by Stephen Caldwell
FREE, BITE-SIZED CPD Speedy Assessment CPD for secondary teachers

With this year’s exams now receding in the rear-view mirror, thousands of educators across England can feel some relief. The weeks and months leading up to examinations are filled with excitement and opportunity – but 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

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