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Gareth D Morewood

Exam stress: supporting pupils and understanding pressures

As the exam period beckons Gareth D. Morewood identifies strategies to manage exam stress. 

At certain times of a young person’s school career, life can be stressful. Perhaps none more so than the culmination of five years of secondary school and Year 11 GCSE exams! This year, in the rapidly changing climate for educational policy, curricula and assessments, we have seen stress levels rise.

GCSE exams are a significant source of stress

Survey research has identified that important assessments are a significant source of stress and worry for pupils in secondary school.

In particular, failing important examinations and the consequences of failing these examinations are rated as more important than a range of other personal and social worries. (Putwain, 2009)

With the enactment of standards-based accountability in education, high-stakes tests have become the dominant method for measuring school effectiveness and pupil achievement.

Schools and educators are under increasing pressure to meet achievement standards. However, there are variables which may interfere with the authentic measurement of pupil achievement, such as test anxiety. In addition, test anxiety has risen with the use of test-based accountability. (Embse & Hasson, 2012)

Strategies to tackle exam pressure and stress

A few years ago we, at Priestnall School, were fortunate enough to trial Edge Hill’s Professor Dave Putwain’s self-help programme called STEPS (Strategies to Tackle Exam Pressure and Stress), which was supported by AQA’s Centre for Education Research and Policy.

STEPS was an interactive programme which included quizzes, games, videos of pupils discussing how they cope with exam stress, and opportunities for pupils to practice anxiety management techniques. Pupils who experienced anxiety about their exams reported that it was reduced after using the STEPS programme. STEPS also helped those with high test anxiety, who reported notable reductions in their levels of stress. Our speech and language therapist and SpLD specialist teacher developed the initial STEPS materials into a bespoke course.

I have previously written about last year’s version. This year we were keen to be more pro-active and support pupils in years 10 and 11, while also offering personalised support during the Easter school revision sessions over the holiday.

Initially pupils ‘self-referred’ for sessions that were delivered inclusively as part of their timetable during the autumn and spring terms. Then the individual sessions continued towards the end of the term and over the Easter break, as requested. Each pupil developed a personalised booklet to support them during the run-up to exams, and during the exam days. The booklets contained recaps of the specific work undertaken in the sessions, and reminded pupils of breathing exercises discussed as part of the sessions. Download the booklet for free and adapt as required.

Too often the sole focus is on subject knowledge and cramming in last minute revision for GCSE exams. This is often added to by parent/carer pressures as well. I suggest that all schools support pupils by providing dedicated time to discuss specific exam-stress issues and also support their young people and parents/carers with practical ‘can-do’ information using the links below and the booklet above. Don’t just do nothing and hope for the best; realise that this is a real issue and something CAN be done in support.

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