Ten tips to avoid exam stress (revisited)

Exam season looms large on the horizon and we teachers must balance appropriate motivating of our students with awareness of likely stress or anxiety.

I wrote an earlier version of this post in April 2016. In 2017 there seems to be even more uncertainty, for teachers and students alike. In the new GCSEs we can’t guide students with any real certainty as to which grades they will achieve. For A levels, it’s the first time any of the new Advanced exams have been set, and only the second for new AS qualifications. Such uncertainties are likely to add to the anxiety of some students. Teachers need to be especially careful not to project our own worry on to those we teach.

Here, then, I am revisiting ten helpful things students can do to keep motivated and stay healthy too. The list originates from an (old specification!) A level psychology task I gave my students to do when they studied a unit on stress. The aim was to use what they had learned to write advice for fellow students. I have developed it over the years and this latest version is influenced by advice from our School Health Nurse, the NHS, and the charity Mind. 


Ten tips to beat exam stress

  1. Get Organised. Make sure you know what exams you have, what kind of questions they will have and when they are.
  2. Manage your time. Your time is precious, so make the best use of it by drawing up a revision timetable. Make sure you build in breaks between sessions.
  3. Stay In control by sticking to your plan and using it to review what you have achieved and what is coming next.
  4. The right Environment. Work somewhere that is light, has enough space and is distraction-free. Music may be OK (you’ll know what works for you) but visual input from TV, screens & social media will just distract you. 
  5. Boost your confidence. Use a revision journal, recall things that have gone well in the past and visualise your success.
  6. Eat Healthily and stay hydrated. Avoid ‘energy’ drinks: they may give the illusion of alertness but actually impair your performance (that’s why you never see an advert saying ‘Drink Red Bull: it helps you revise.’ Because it doesn’t.
  7. Get enough sleep; don’t stay up late revising, a tired brain does not work well, either at the time, or the next morning.
  8. Friends & family. Let them know you have exams and need to revise. Keep in touch during those breaks you planned into your revision.
  9. Avoid life changes. Now isn’t the time To start a new relationship or plan to run away to the circus (however tempting that may seem).
  10. Understand your body and the signals it sends you. Recognise that signs of exam nerves like ‘butterflies in the stomach’ a dry mouth, or sweaty palms are nothing to worry about. They are just symptoms telling you that your body preparing for action. 

We include a version of this list in the revision advice we give to students and share it with parents through our school newsletter. This year we have also run special sessions on tackling exam anxiety this year which have proved popular. 

Students can get more help and advice on student life from the Student Minds website and  these pages on the Mind website where you can also download a PDF document. Advice directed at parents and carers can be found on this area of the NHS Choices website.

I hope you found this post useful. Please feel free to use and adapt it as you wish. I’d be interested in which resources other schools use.

Ten things to look forward to in the Summer term

The weeks between Christmas and Easter may have seemed a long haul and the new term will bring the challenges of revision and exams for many, but there’s plenty to look forward to at the start of the Summer term. Here’s my top ten list:

  1. For some of our students, the holidays can be difficult and, although they might not always show it, they’ll have been be looking forward to the new term. Make it a good one.
  2. Easter isn’t over! It isn’t just a bank holiday, it’s a whole season and the biggest festival in the Christian tradition, so keep on celebrating!
  3. Easter and Spring are traditionally times for thinking about new life and new beginnings. What aspects of your practice could you revitalise? Is there something new you could try?
  4. We’re now well into British Summer Time – no more waking up before sunrise and coming home darkness: the days will be getting longer and (hopefully) warmer. Take some times to soak up those rays. Even on overcast days natural sunlight will do you good (remember sunscreen though).
  5. While you’re out and about, take some time to connect with nature. Look out for the signs that spring is turning into summer. Take notice of small changes and you’ll soon see that no two days are alike.
  6. How did you do with any New Year resolutions? Now is an ideal time to commit to your own wellbeing, making those resolutions not just a one-off but part of a healthier, happier lifestyle.
  7. There are plenty of holidays and festivals during the Summer term including the May Day bank holiday (1 May), Spring Bank Holiday (29th May), Shavuot (31 May), Pentecost (4 June), Fathers’ Day (18 June), Summer Solstice (21 June), and Eid-al-Fitr (26 June).
  8. You may have pupils taking exams this term, but you don’t have to sit them! I always hated exams and while I’m proud of my qualifications I’m also glad that I no longer have to sit exams! We all survived the process – use your experience to help students be successful too. I’ve written about avoiding exam stress here. The article also contains links to useful websites.
  9. Some of the best bits of school happen in the Summer term: school trips, outdoor education, Summer concerts, PTA barbecues, sports days, proms, end of year awards. These and more enrich the curriculum and help build communities.
  10. At the end of this term… Summer holiday!

So, what are you looking forward to this Summer term? Why not share with a comment? 

Festival dates from timeanddate.com

Storm Doris: Do windy days wind children up?

This is a perennial topic for the staff room or playground duty and this week many a veteran was predicting that the sting winds brought by storm Doris would  lead to some challenging behaviour. 

But is there any evidence that high winds do affect children’s behaviour? I’ve often wondered and a took the opportunity to collect some data on wind speed (published by the nearest weather station) and the behaviour incidents logged at our school over the last two school weeks, one of which featured lower wind speeds, the other higher speeds as Doris passed over the UK. 


I’m not sure what that shows, and it isn’t a lot of data, but It doesn’t look like any kind of convincing correlation. On the other hand it isn’t a precise measure (‘incident’ covers everything from homework not handed in to having to be removed from a lesson). Another interesting point is the positive side of behaviour – we gave out 12% more achievement points in the Doris week than when wind speeds were low. As for every week the, the number of achievements recorded exceeded the behaviour incidents, with teachers giving out over ten times as many positive achievement points as negative behaviour ones.

In Oxford we were only on the southern edge of the storm, maybe the effect would be greater further north. Anyone want to share some data? 

 
What does published research tell us?


I had a brief look at the range of research on this topic (incidentally, best to avoid typing ‘wind’ and ‘children’ into a search engine unless you’re researching flatulence). There are several ideas as to how high winds could affect behaviour including change in air pressure associated with storm fronts, extra-low-frequency atmospheric pressure oscillations,  increased sensory stimulation, and an increase in positively charged ions. I didn’t explore this last one because the ions are created by hot, dry winds and that doesn’t apply to February in the UK.

Bill Badger and Eric O’Hare of The University of Lankester researched the effect of weather on the behaviour of students at a secondary school in Cumbria in 1989. They found that behaviour was affected by weather but by changes in the prevailing conditions, rather than the type of weather itself. You can read the abstract here. In a US preschool study in 1990, Eva Essa, Hilton & Murray found that stormy, unsettled weather caused children, especially girls, to interact more with other people than toys (abstract here and paper free if you sign up). A small lab-study by Delyukov and Didyk in 1999 showed that artificially produced pressure oscillations reduced attention. Lovely controlled conditions (abstract here) but a long way from Year 9 on a windy wet  Wednesday lunchtime.

So, research suggests that changes in weather and atmospheric pressure do affect children (and adults), but there isn’t a clear link to increases in ‘wild’ behaviour at school.

If you’re interested in involving students in the topic the Met Office have produced a maths investigation for use with their Weather Observation Website.

Making the most of working memory capacity

“My problem is that I have been persecuted by an integer.” That’s how psychologist George Miller began his groundbreaking account of short term memory capacity in 1956 (read his original paper here). That integer was 7, the “magic number” that kept appearing in research on our ability to process incoming information. 

Short term memory stores information collected from our senses. This may be transferred to our long term memory, or may be lost. From his own research and that of others, Miller concluded that the capacity of our short-term memory is limited to 7 +/- 2 items. The reason why we lose some information before it can be transferred to our long term memory is usually because it is displaced by new incoming information. 

Cognitive psychologists Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch then developed the model of a simple memory store into the concept of working memory, but the principle of a limited capacity remains. Teachers need to be aware of this in presenting students with new subject content. A feeling of being overwhelmed by new information isn’t because our brain is ‘full’ but rather because the capacity of our working memory to process new information is being exceeded. An understanding of the limits of working memory can help teachers plan accessible learning activities for all students and also recognise those who have poor working memory.

In general, we should think about how much information is presented at once and how many items, or instructions in a sequence, students have to recall without prompts in order to complete a task. Most of us would struggle beyond 7 for an unfamiliar task, and some students will not readily recall this many. Examples where teachers should consider this in the design of resources and tasks include:

  • The layout of presentation slides and the number of items on each
  • The number of options or menu items in electronic / online resources
  • The layout of activity sheets – how much information is presented at once
  • The number of steps or stages in a sequence of instructions. Should some steps be broken down further into sub-stages?
  • The number of verbal instructions, repetition, and availability of non-verbal memory aids.
  • What assumptions do instructions for practical activities make about students’ recollection of previous routines?
  • How much do students have to remember in order to complete homework?

Much of this would be considered good advise for general planning. We have to give additional consideration for children who may have more limited working memory capacity.

Characteristics of children with poor working memory (Susan Gathercole)

  • Children have good social skills but may be quiet or reserved in collaborative learning activities.
  • May appear forgetful, inattentive or easily distracted in class
  • May not follow through instructions or complete tasks
  • Forget key content of messages, instructions or homework

If you’re like me, when reading that list you will recall children you teach who have these characteristics. It is well worth considering that the ‘inattentive’ or ‘distracted’ child may be experiencing difficulties with working memory. This can often result in poor academic progress over time. Research has focussed on reading and mathematics, but other areas of study are also likely to be affected. 

On recognising these signs, there are a number of things that teachers can do to help students, including:

  • Reducing the working memory load by decreasing the number of items that need to be remembered at one time, particularly by restructuring complex tasks
  • increasing the meaningfulness of new material by placing it in context and the familiarity by making explicit links with prior learning and similar information of tasks that the student has encountered before
  • Repeating key information frequently, using different formats
  • Using memory aids as appropriate for the student, these could include key vocabulary, visual scripts, framing tools to break down tasks into stages, number lines or grids, literacy  place mats, etc.
  • Helping the child to develop specific strategies such as devising their own memory aids, confidence in asking for help, ‘3 before me’ resourcefulness strategies ( e.g. ‘Brain, book, buddy’), and improved organisational skills.
  • Providing specific support for students in collaborative tasks, providing context and making roles and outcomes clear. I’ve written more on this in my post on ‘Making group work work’.

It is also worth recognising that our working memory capacity increases throughout childhood. For some children, the issue may be a developmental delay and with support they will catch up with their peers.

 

Can training improve working memory?

A considerable amount of research has been conducted into whether is is possible to train children (and adults) to improve working memory. The results are mixed, but overall this research indicates that training methods can improve short-term performance in specific tasks, but these improvements are not generalisable to other tasks or skills. This evidence suggests that our efforts as teachers may be better placed in helping students make the most effective use of the working memory they have, rather than attempting to increase their capacity.

 
Further reading

Miller, George A. (1956) The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information. Originally published in Psychology Review 63: 81-97. A transcript of Miller’s lecture on short term memory capacity mentioned at the start of this post. 

Gathercole, Susan & Alloway, Tracy (2007) Working memory and learning: a classroom guide. Harcourt Assessment, London. A very accessible short practical guide for teachers.

Melby-Lervåg, Monica & Hulme, Charles (2013) Is working memory training effective? A meta analysis of over twenty research studies. Developmental Psychology vol 49, 2:270-291. A meta analysis of the effectiveness of working memory training.

Workable Wellbeing 3

Last Sunday, the #SLTchat topic was wellbeing, hosted by @ottleyoconnor, a topic this Twitter discussion forum has addressed before. The irony of teachers tweeting about work-life balance on a Sunday evening notwithstanding, I have always found theses discussions really useful and they have inspired these earlier posts on wellbeing.

Workable wellbeing

Workable wellbeing 2

Returning to wellbeing seems more relevant than ever. What struck me about the discussion was the number of participants writing about modelling wellbeing for others. This had been mentioned previously, but it seemed to me that it was a dominant theme of the most recent forum. @pickleholic, @issydhan, @chrisedwardsuk, and @AsstHead_Jones, among others, all stressed the importance of school leaders modelling behaviours that foster positive wellbeing.

How can we model what wellbeing looks like? Here’s my completely unscientific sample of elements grabbed from the blizzard of comment that is #SLTchat:

  • It’s ok to leave early sometimes, especially when other days have been late.
  • Touching base about family, interests, hobbies, books, films or music is normal human interaction. We’re here to get a job done but relationships are important.
  • Share the things you do to foster your own wellbeing. I hope I haven’t bored anybody about #teacher5aday or the Fitbit I got for Christmas!
  • Admit mistakes, talk about times when you got it wrong, and what you learned. OK, there’s a time and a place for this. There are many occasions where colleagues need leaders to lead, modelling calm and decisiveness, but being superhuman isn’t realistic and pretending to be can harm oneself and be off-putting to others. 
  • Ask for help. We need to be accessible to our teams, so we should model that it’s OK to ask for help. Teachers shouldn’t feel isolated and asking for help will show others that it’s ok to do the same.
  • Smile. I’m terrible for getting lost in thought, presenting a blank gaze to others in the corridor, but a smile at the right moment can be just what someone needs.
  • Make talking about mental health everyday and normal. I think this was another strong strand in the discussion, quite rightly.

So what I have taken away from last Sunday’s #SLTchat is the need to model behaviours that lead to wellbeing. I’ll be trying to do that more at work from now on. What was my contribution to the discussion on work-life balance? Leaving the chat early to pick my son up from youth club!

    Snow Joke: Severe Weather Planning

    Earlier this week (w/b 9/1/17) an off-the-cuff comment about snow became my most ‘liked’ tweet ever:

    Today I made sure our severe weather closure procedures were in place. Absolute guarantee that not a single snowflake will fall on school.

    I’m glad that so many people liked it but, joking apart, here’s what some of that planning actually was.

    Verifying our priorities for partial closure if necessary. We’re an all-through school so we would prioritise nursery and primary pupils where parents would find it difficult to organise childcare or time off work at short notice. The next priority is students in exam years. We would redeploy staff as necessary. We also check which colleagues are most likely to have transport difficulties in the event of severe weather.

    Checking the communication cascade for staff. We use a text/phone cascade to communicate quickly to all colleagues if we have to partially or fully close. This uses our line management structure so we checked that everyone had the up to date details they needed. Better to check before the weather turns!

    Checking contractors. We have a contract in place for snow clearance on campus. Worth checking they were ready for a possible snowfall. Similarly checking our own provision – salt, grit, etc.

    Parental communication. Checking and where necessary updating draft messages ready to be sent out by text, email and website. Just as well we did, version we had was dated 2013 and from previous Head! We also checked that procedures for contacting the LA and local media were up to date, including current code words for local radio stations.

    Snow Rules. Check what advice and rules need to be in place for snowfall, in addition to our code of conduct, so we can enjoy snow safely.

    Update work for students in the event of snow closure. This is our current advice which would be posted on our website and emailed out in the event of a closure. We like to think it is both productive and fun:

    Work in the event of a Snow Closure

    You should aim to gain at least 16 points from a mix of the following activities.

     Individual work:​Please check Show My Homework and Doddle to see if your teachers have set you individual or class tasks. 1 point per 15 minutes

     Art:​​ 3D Sculpture. Keeping warm and working safely, build a snow sculpture to a design of your choosing. You can work on your own or with others. Take a photo of your completed sculpture or draw it. If there isn’t enough snow, sketch a design for a sculpture. 4 points

     English:​ Persuasive Writing. The decision to close schools because of heavy snowfall is sometimes controversial. Write an argument for or against closing schools for this reason. You must consider both sides of the debate. 6 points

    ​Points to consider:

    • Health & safety of pupils

    • Ability of pupils and school staff to travel to school safely

    • Impact on parents of having to miss work to look after children

     

    Faith in Action:​ Snow can be a lot of fun, but for some people such as the elderly, it can create real difficulties. Design a poster, leaflet or radio/TV ad about helping elderly relatives or neighbours during winter. If you can help out someone in need, please do, but only if you know them and with permission of your parent/carer. 4 points.

    French / German:​ Linguascope. Please log at least 30 minutes of Linguascope activity. 1 point for every 15 minutes.

    Maths:​ Mymaths. Please log at least 30 minutes of activity on MyMaths. Your teacher will receive an update of your progress. 1 point for every 15 minutes.

    PE:​ Aerobic exercise. Keeping warm and staying safe, do at least 30 minutes aerobic exercise including any of the following activities:

    • Snowballing

    • Sledging

    • Building snow sculptures

    • Making snow angels

    ​If there isn’t enough snow for this, design a 30 minute winter aerobic exercise workout. 4 points

    Science​: Use your knowledge of states of matter to predict the volume of liquid produced from a volume of liquid snow. Use a measuring jug, old drinks bottle, etc. to test your hypothesis. Record your results. 4 points.

    ICT​: Tweet a message about your work using the hashtag #stgregorysnow or email a message to Dr Caseby: r.caseby@dbmac.org.uk with ‘stgregorysnow’ as the subject header. ​1 point each, max 3 points.


    Postscript 14/1/17

    After that planning, as I predicted in my tweet, we didn’t have any significant snowfall last week; what there was quickly turned to slush. I am now being blamed by several colleagues for ‘jinxing the snow day’!

    Comments are always welcome. I’d be interested to know what work or activities other schools set in the event of a snow day.

    Chalking the doors: the importance of a welcome

    This Friday we started the school day by marking Epiphany with the Christian tradition of chalking the doors. Each lintel or door was chalked with:

    20+C+M+B+17

    This isn’t a mathematical formula, but a blessing on all those who enter, ‘CMB’ standing for Christus Mansionem Benedictat – may Christ bless the house – and also the traditional names of the three wise men, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar.

    I work in a Catholic school and this is a tradition particular to some branches of Chritianity, but it felt very special to offer a blessing to students as they entered a classroom, or to colleagues in an admin area or office. Relationships are at the heart of any school community and the first step in forming positive relationships is making people feel welcome.

    We encourage all teachers to welcome students into classrooms each lesson, trying as much as possible to timetable each colleague into one room. As well as a verbal greeting, welcome message on the board can also be a nice touch. Displays featuring children’s work shows them they are valued, as well as providing exemplars. Several colleagues rotate work on a continually updated ‘wall of fame’.

    This welcome becomes all the more important for new pupils arriving mid-year, especially those who don’t have English as a first language. We have an orientation day for new students and our EAL department will work with them and their family or carers on an initial programme to support their language needs. This enables all staff to receive a single-page profile of the pupil before they commence classes.

    One of the many advantages of being a very diverse school community is that whatever first language a new pupil has we can usually ‘buddy’ them up with someone who speaks it. The new pupil is placed in a tutor group and, where possible, classes with their buddy. Staff are informed who the buddy is on the new student profile.

    We need to be particularly aware when pupils have experienced trauma before arriving, such as being refugees.  I have written about supporting children who are refugees, and the problems they can face once in Britain here. One thing we always do is warn staff to be careful when using media such as news articles and films that depict conflict.

    These are some of the ways we extend our welcome, from the planned induction of a new pupil to the daily interactions across the whole community. We hope this makes coming into class feel like a blessing, not just at the start of the year but every day.

    Constructive comments are always welcome. I’d particularly like to hear about other ways of extending a welcome in school.