This is an edited version of an article originally published on: Al Kingsley at LinkedIn
For some, the Christmas holidays are a stressful time of year. For others, it’s the end of a financial year. For almost anyone working in education, it’s May and June. Every year.
From early years right through to university finals, exam season is a tense time for everyone involved – students, parents, teachers, head teachers and anyone who spends any amount of time with them. And now, as May approaches, educators everywhere consider how to best prepare their students for what lies ahead.
Teachers, of course, will have additional responsibilities of their own to juggle at this time: supporting students to revise effectively, tracking progress for senior leaders, managing the expectations of parents, planning last-minute revision classes and staying on top of a particularly heavy assessment schedule.
While, thankfully, there’s now a greater awareness of mental health issues in the UK, many educators report concern about their students’ wellbeing during exam season, with children as young as ten feeling great pressure to perform. There’s a delicate balance, say teachers, between giving learners the practice they need while making sure that they feel happy, healthy and well supported.
Just recently, a UK primary school teacher asked the TES community forum for ways of supporting a capable but anxious year six pupil who ‘freezes’ during practice tests. The answers given to the poster reveal that the situation has become only too common.
Supporting Students in the Primary Classroom
As educators of primary-aged students report higher rates of exam-related stress, some are becoming more careful with the language they use to describe summative assessment. Mindful that SATs can cause great anxiety for some children, some KS2 practitioners find it helpful to replace the words ‘test’ and ‘practice papers’ with ‘activity’ or ‘timed learning’. Just like any other time of year, they say, school should promote a love of learning, with an emphasis on student self-development rather than competition.
It’s also worth experimenting with comment-based feedback (in place of formal levels) when assessing work at primary level. Research shows that grades tend to overpower comments anyway and this supports best practice in assessment for learning. Teachers can always hold this data privately for their own records and this should ensure that the emphasis is on learning rather than levels. It also cuts out the inevitable “so what did you get?” discussions when papers are returned.
One TES commenter encourages students to make a note of their feelings before sitting a practice test as a way of managing anxieties. Other teachers emphasise to students that their best is enough and will firmly reiterate this message to anxious parents. As a general rule, the more relaxed the adults can appear, the better. Younger children will very easily absorb our negative feelings so it’s important to communicate calm. Students struggling with anxieties may find it difficult to talk to someone face to face, therefore schools may find a ‘report a concern’ tool useful, allowing students to reach out to a trusted member of staff.
Many schools find that it’s useful to be flexible with the test location and make alternative access arrangements for a particularly anxious child; allowing the student to sit the test in a low stress environment with the support of a teaching assistant, for instance. It can also be useful to create a separate ‘soft space’ with bean bags, music, snacks and coloured pens.
Supporting Students in the Secondary Classroom
Though most secondary educators are keenly aware of the stresses associated with high-stakes GCSE and A-level exams, it’s easy to forget about KS3. But for many younger children, exam season can trigger new anxieties as they prepare to take their first exams in formal examination halls comprising unfamiliar invigilators and long, intimidating rows of narrow desks.
Though ‘walking-talking mock exams’ are not without criticism, some schools offer the experience specifically to reassure anxious students. This usually involves a subject teacher guiding students through the entire exam process: visiting the examination hall, finding their assigned seat, reading through the paper as a class, tackling questions, practising timings, running through exam terminology and selecting strategies for approaching different types of questions.
To combat general exam anxiety, some schools now deliver sessions on ‘stress management’ to all year groups through tutorial or PSHE programmes. Again, this can be challenging to organise, but the best are thoughtfully planned, sensibly embedded into wider curriculum topics and delivered by teachers with some specialist training of their own.
Now formally taught in many schools, mindfulness meditation can be a powerful tool for coping with life’s stressors. Whether through a brief guided breathing exercise or a formally taught session, mindfulness is an excellent and inexpensive way to promote good adolescent mental health. Some secondary teachers also direct students to the popular ‘Headspace’ app, which offers a range of short, free online meditation sessions to stream from a phone.
Likewise, there are many valuable apps to assist with the creation of revision timetables, like Revision World or Get Revising. Like everyone else, students tend to feel more assured when they’re properly organised and have everything they need to succeed. Starting early in the academic year, teachers can help students to identify key topics in each subject and devise a realistic revision timetable.
Many educators report that offering students access to NetSupport School’s Digital Journal can be an excellent way to support revision. Here, students can find all study materials held in one location – including class notes, lesson objectives, relevant screenshots, key topics, concepts, terminology lists and useful links to approved websites.
Additionally, using a keyword monitoring tool such as NetSupport DNA can help schools identify trending topics across a year group at any one time. These tools can help unveil any additional issues students may be facing that might also be adding to the stress load.
Supporting Students at University
University life can be challenging at the best of times, with many students juggling part-time jobs, busy social lives and heavy academic workloads. For most, university is the first time away from home, family and a life protected from financial pressures. Some students may be studying overseas, far away from everything that is familiar, while many non-traditional students will be juggling many commitments at once.
If a student appears particularly anxious, it’s often worth asking if they’re eating healthily, sleeping well and exercising regularly. However responsible they might appear, it’s easy to fall into unhealthy habits during stressful times – particularly when living away from family for the first time.
Exams can also exacerbate other life stressors – such as financial difficulties, a demanding part-time job or caring responsibilities – so it’s worth finding out if there are any non-academic issues that might be challenging the student. Again, a keyword monitoring tool, such as one in NetSupport DNA, will help find additional trending terms.
Of course, most universities also have dedicated support services, both online and on-campus, for students to access at any time. Encourage students to talk to their existing networks and stress that there is absolutely no shame in seeking additional support.
No matter the age or level, there are valuable resources freely available to support all students during this potentially stressful season, with many others created specifically for their parents and teachers. While, for some, exam-taking will never be enjoyable, help is at hand to make the experience a little less stressful.
Practical ideas for coping with exam-related stress from mental health charity, Mind
A comprehensive guide to introducing younger children to mindfulness meditation from Guardian Teacher Network
Author : Natalie Nezhati, Educational content consultant for NetSupport.