Ten tips to avoid exam stress

Exam season is upon us again and it can be a fine balance for teachers between motivating students and causing undue stress or anxiety.

Here are some helpful things students can do to keep motivated and stay healthy too. This list originated several years ago from an A level psychology task I gave my students to do for a unit on stress – use what they had learned to write advice for students who had upcoming exams. I have developed it over the years and this latest version is influenced by advice from our School Health Nurse, Deb Burdett, 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. Make a revision timetable. Make sure you build in breaks.
  3. Stay In control by sticking to your plan.
  4. The right Environment. Work somewhere that is light, has enough space and is distraction-free.
  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 give the illusion of alertness but impair your performance.
  7. Sleep. Get enough sleep; a tired brain does not work well.
  8. Friends & family. Let them know you have exams and need to revise. Keep in touch during your planned breaks.
  9. Avoid life changes: For example starting a new relationship.
  10. Nerves: Recognise that signs of exam nerves like ‘butterflies in the stomach’ or a dry mouth are just your body preparing for action. 

We include this in our revision guides we give to students and it has also just gone out as the regular (‘Dear Deb…’) item from our School Health Nurse in our school newsletter.

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

Students get more help and advice on student life from these pages on the Mind website and advice directed at parents and carers can be found on this area of the NHS Choices website.

April 2017 Update

Our old school nurse Deb Burdett has been promoted on to another area, but we still use the materials we produced together and our current school nurse, covering more than one school, keeps up the good work. We have run special sessions on tackling exam anxiety this year which have proved popular.

This list is made up of simple, but proven advice. The websites cited provide further guidance and signpost additional help for students who need it.


Progress on Behaviour – Haven’t I Seen This Graph Somewhere Before?

Last summer I wrote a post about a more focussed approach to meeting the needs of disadvantaged students: Premier Pupil Premium. In this I mentioned groups we were focusing on, including those students receiving the pupil premium whose challenging behaviour seemed the main inhibitor to progress. We also set up a comparator group of students who had similar issues of behaviour but did not receive the pupil premium.

This Easter I have been reviewing the progress of these groups. We chose to monitor progress with behaviour using the conduct points system within SIMS. Like many schools, we use a rewards and consequences system where students gain positive achivement points for prosocial behaviours, effort and achievement, and negative points for breaches of the code of conduct. The sum of these is called their conduct points score within SIMS. On average, a student gets a couple of achievement points each week and won’t have any behaviour points.

The graph for the weekly points balance for the two groups looks like this:

I update it every week. Around 20 weeks in, I thought ‘hang on, I’ve seen this graph before.’ It then dawned on me that my graph looked a lot like an Internet meme about progress/success. The version below was tweeted by @7billcorp earlier this year:


image courtesy of 7billionideas.com
Now, I never expected our plan – to help pupils improve their behaviour to match the majority of their peers – to be a gentle ride in a straight line, but perhaps you can see that around week 15 it felt a bit like we were dipped in that lake in the middle of the picture!

I think a couple of things helped us to continue to make progress from this point onwards:

  • Perseverance – we weren’t going to give up
  • Making good use of the data. Drilling down showed us that many pupils were making progress, with some spectacular examples. This enabled us to keep doing what worked for some and think anew for others.

It became apparent that there were three groups within each group:

  1. Pupils who reacted quickly to interventions and made rapid improvements.
  2. Pupils who took longer to react and/or had more frequent setbacks, so made more gradual progress, with improvement taking longer.
  3. Pupils who did not seem to respond to interventions and whose behaviour did not improve, or even deteriorated.

This third group is made up of only half a dozen of the thirty or so children involved in total, but they account for a high proportion of the behaviour incidents recorded. Our response has been to increase our interventions, working more closely with parents and carers, other agencies involved, and in some cases adjusting their curriculum.

Effective interventions

Our approach has been to raise the profile of students whose behaviour can inhibit their learning with all staff members (although some of these students are very good at raising their own profile!) The focus is on improving behaviour by:

  • A consistent approach from staff through applying our behaviour policy, including rewards and consequences – in particular to ‘catch them being good’ rather than just identify misbehaviour.
  • Work with the pupils involved to identify what they find difficult and planning where they will try to earn achievement points, usually in a favourite subject.
  • Using existing systems to follow up students. For example a member of SLT is on duty each period and will try to visit some of the target students in their classes.
  • Discussing weekly monitoring data at SLT meetings and sharing with all staff in staff briefing. This includes the focus on students eligible for the Pupil Premium grant.

It is these interventions that seemed to work quickly with the pupils in group 1. They responded to encouragement readily, perhaps realising that they could gain attention from their achievements, rather than from ‘clowning’ in class.

Some pupils, however formed the second group, who responded more slowly. As well as persisting with the approach described above, we found that engaging parents helped, for example by making sure we contacted home about their successes, and by sharing their tracking data with them. In fact, in the long run this has produced some of the dramatic turnarounds. Many students have been clearly proud to receive  personalised graphs showing their successful trajectory.

This leaves the smaller third group of students who did not seem to respond like the others. Following my initial post, several readers asked about group characteristics, but really there aren’t any. We realised that success here would be the result of responding to individual needs and circumstances. This remains a work in progress, but involves more specific interventions such as:

  • Behaviour contacts & support plans, including ‘time out’ cards and named staff students will talk to when things go wrong. 
  • Mentoring or specific work on an area of difficulty such as anger management
  • Increased parental engagement
  • Group changes where appropriate
  • Temporary reduced timetable, or staggered day (e.g. Starting later but staying longer)
  • Alternative provision for part of the week either in school or in partnership with other agencies, directed at addressing a particular need.

We are currently looking at how we can plan for changes which we have identified as having a big impact on behaviour, for example return after a school holiday (or in some cases the run up to one), change in foster care, or family illness, especially for young carers. One aspect of difficulty we have found is that sometimes a special educational need is indicated but parents/carers are reluctant to support the process of identification / diagnosis, perhaps because of a perceived social stigma. Here we need to help them understand the potential benefits to their child.

Next Steps

I will next be looking at progress data to see what impact improvents in behaviour have had on learning. The message I want to share now is – for everyone working hard to improve children’s chances and finding it tough going – hang on on there! Persevere with what you know works and even when the data looks bad, use it to help you learn more.

As always, I’d love to read your comments.

Ten ways you know it’s the start of term.

Feeling a bit disoriented after that lovely holiday? Here’s my top ten list of things that tell you the new term has started!

  1. You breathe out a sigh of relief that the waistband of your work clothes still fits – and a button pops off.
  2. When you finally find your lanyard again you realise that the age gap between your staff ID photo and reality has widened yet further.
  3. As a result of the ‘holiday IT update’ your computer crashes when you try to log in.
  4. There are now 247 emails in your inbox.
  5. Some one asks’Sir?’ / ‘Miss?’ And for a moment you wonder who they’re talking to.
  6. The bells, the bells! Your life becomes Pavlovian again.
  7. At least a dozen new educational acronyms (NEAs) seem to have been invented since the end of last term.
  8. You scald yourself with your coffee, not having time to let it cool down.
  9. You spend more time with your legs crossed as you can no longer just pop to the loo when you need to.
  10. After your busy day, you realise that you have to get up at THAT TIME again tomorrow…

So, how many did you score out of ten at the start of this term? Remember, though, what you do makes a real difference and at least there’s no time to be bored!

Anything I missed? What would you put in the top ten?