November GCSE exams: Helping students to handle the pressure

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
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Given the uncertainty that students have faced this summer, those who have decided to sit some of their GCSEs in November might be feeling more anxiety than usual. We offer some expert advice to help young people handle the pressure and boost their exam outcomes. Emma Lee-Potter explains


Given that it is October and the beginning of a challenging new term in the midst of a pandemic, you would be forgiven for forgetting that GCSE season is just around the corner.

After the Covid-19 lockdown, the cancelled summer examinations and the chaos and uncertainty surrounding this year’s results, an autumn series has been created to give GCSE candidates the opportunity to improve their grades.

AS and A level exams are taking place from October 5 to 23 and the GCSE series will run from November 2 to 23.

It is hard to imagine just how the candidates preparing for November must be feeling given that during any normal GCSE season we are already acutely aware of the pressures that pupils face.

In recent research, a quarter of teachers said that in terms of resilience, mental health and emotional wellbeing, today’s year 11 students are coping with exam pressure “worse” or “much worse” than two years ago.

The survey of 4,000 secondary teachers in England, carried out by TeacherTapp for online tutoring platform MyTutor, revealed that certain factors had significantly worsened for year 11 students over the past two years.

Six in 10 teachers reported that students’ anxiety was worse, half (52 per cent) said that social media addiction and/or cyber-bullying was worse, and half (49 per cent) thought that pupils’ engagement with learning had declined. Teachers were also worried about pupils not getting enough sleep (43 per cent).

Asked about the factors that were most damaging to students’ emotional wellbeing, 71 per cent cited the distractions of technology and social media, 64 per cent blamed too much screen time, and 61 per cent pointed to a lack of parental engagement at home. Furthermore, 54 per cent mentioned excessive exam or assessment pressure and 49 per cent cited low aspirations and a lack of role models.

These results bear out the findings of other recent research. A 2019 survey by mental health charity YoungMinds revealed that 77 per cent of youngsters who had sought help for their mental health felt that “academic pressure” had been a contributing factor.


Exam strategies

So, how can teachers boost students’ resilience and promote better mental health during exam season?

Earlier this year, MyTutor published a report offering practical tips for how teachers can support students who experience exam anxiety. Entitled Exam anxiety and mental health, it includes guidance from three experts:

  • Dr Jo Taylor, an educational psychologist working in east London.
  • David Putwain, professor of education and early childhood studies at Liverpool John Moores University.
  • Dr Tamsin McCaldin, an educational psychologist from the University of Manchester.


What is exam anxiety?

In his contribution to the report, Prof David Putwain describes test anxiety as “the tendency to experience most (or all) exams as threatening and react with high levels of anxiety”. Cognitive signs of this include going blank during an exam or finding it difficult to concentrate. Physiological signs could be a fast heartbeat, a dry mouth, wobbly legs, feeling dizzy or faint, a tight or churning stomach or sweating.

Prof Putwain said: “Schools I’ve worked with have tried a variety of approaches to support students, including yoga, mindfulness, resilience training, pet therapy and quiet time,” he said. “These can definitely be effective approaches to general stress management but their effectiveness for managing test anxiety will be limited unless they specifically address the root causes.”

He recommends a number of straightforward steps.

  • Make exams “normal”: Exam anxiety is less likely to develop when exams in formal settings are part of the normal routine of school life.
  • Avoid making assumptions: Students who show outward signs of panic and anxiety will not be the only ones feeling anxious about their exams. Some teenagers may “internalise their anxiety” and avoid talking about it.
  • Start the conversation: Talk to students about stress and anxiety, what the triggers are and how to recognise the signs. Strategies to cope with anxiety, such as diaphragmatic or deep breathing, can be discussed during wellbeing days or in PSHE.
  • Help students to structure revision: Showing students how to revise in a cycle of self-regulating learning (set goals, revise, test, review goals) can provide the structure that some students need to underpin their revision.


The student perspective

The MyTutor report also includes useful insights from a study – conducted by Dr Tamsin McCaldin – which followed a group of students through their GCSEs. Students in the research predominantly described two negative emotions – “panic” and “stress” (interestingly, they did not use the term “anxiety”).

Students described a number of factors which either increased or decreased negative emotions, many relating to the behaviours of people around them, including teachers:

  • Vague exam messages, without suggesting specific actions students can take, are unhelpful. However, “actionable exam messages” giving step-by-step advice decrease stress. Dr McCaldin said: “Any messages which contained specific and detailed actions which students could take, either at that particular moment in time, during their revision, or during the exam itself, reduced negative emotions.”
  • Dramatisation of the exam, such as presenting GCSEs as “the biggest thing we’ll ever have to do”, was considered unhelpful and stress-inducing.
  • Familiarisation: “Students described familiarisation with the process of doing exam questions or taking mocks as reducing negative emotions. This included the practicalities of how to deal with the unfamiliar processes of the exam.”

Dr McCaldin added: “In terms of day-to-day practice, teachers can increase the positive emotions of all their students by making an effort to avoid messages which focus on failure, and giving specific and structured revision advice, with evidence of how the advice links directly to the exam.”


It’s good to talk

Elsewhere in the MyTutor report, educational psychologist Dr Jo Taylor urges schools to consider the specific context of the child when planning what support to put in place.

If a child is anxious about their exams it may be difficult for teachers to assess the scale of the problem. Dr Taylor recommends asking key questions to build up a picture of the whole child:

  • “How long has the child been acting like this?”
  • “What impact does their anxiety seem to be having on them?”
  • “Who else has noticed?”

Furthermore, we must not make decisions in isolation. Dr Taylor adds: “Talk to your teaching colleagues and discuss the way forward. You may have noticed something that worries you but you may not be the best person to act on it.”

He adds that small things make a big difference: “Helping to promote student wellbeing on a daily basis during the run-up to exams – and generally – can make a big difference.

“There are lots of evidence-based tools out there but one of my favourites is the Resilience Framework – it shows how the small things teachers do can make a big difference and gives suggestions of things to try, such as helping students to see the positive side of things, focusing on responsibilities, helping them to plan, encouraging them to enjoy positive experiences, and facilitating problem-solving.”


Conclusion

More exam preparation strategies and tips, including further details on the strategies listed above, can be found on the dedicated MyTutor report website.


  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education journalist.


Further information & resources

SecEd Knowledge Bank

This article has been published by SecEd with sponsorship from MyTutor. It has been written and produced to a brief agreed in advance with MyTutor.


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