Exams: Use the motivation, lose the stress

With the 2018 summer exam season almost upon us, teachers are looking to balance ways to motivate our students to perform at their best, with awareness of how to avoid damaging stress or anxiety. Parents and carers also want their children to succeed, but may be worried by the pressure placed upon them.

This year, this can seem even more of a challenge than before. In the new norm-referenced GCSEs, there is an increased focus on terminal examinations but we do not know with any real certainty where grade boundaries will be set. Students who previously would have been able to ‘bank’ a proportion of marks from centre-assessed components, coursework, or modular exams, must now pitch all their effort into a few summer weeks. These new assessments, and uncertainty around them, are likely to add to anxiety among teachers. We need to be especially careful not to project our own worries and concerns onto our students.

Here, I have extended previous posts on exams that were based on an exercise I developed through teaching psychology, to produce this guide to maximising motivation while beating exam stress. I have also included further links to helpful information at the end.


Ten tips to beat exam stress

  1. Get organised. Make sure you know what exams you have for each subject and which topics are covered in each paper. Get to know which kind of questions to expect for each subject and paper. Make sure you know when each exam starts and where it will be. Your school should give you a list – stick a copy up at home or transfer the information to a family calendar.
  2. Manage your time. Your time is precious, so make the best use of it. Draw up a revision timetable to help you do this, breaking up your revision into manageable chunks. Many people like to plan in terms of an hour – 50 minutes of revision and a ten-minute break. Make sure you build in breaks between sessions to maintain your effectiveness. You might find it helpful to set a timer with an alarm to help you stick to your schedule. Block out any time on your calendar when you have to do other things, including some time when you can step away from revision and re-engage with friends and family (see No.8).
  3. Stay in control by sticking to your plan. Use it to review what you have already achieved and what you need to do next. It’s a good idea to spend the first few minutes of each revision session reviewing what you covered in the last one.
  4. Create the right environment. Work somewhere that is light, has enough space, and is distraction-free. Visual input from TV, screens & social media will just distract you, so it all needs to be switched off and put away while you revise. You may feel that listening to music is OK, or even helpful, but some research suggests that this can also reduce the effectiveness of revision. If finding a place to revise at home is difficult, ask your teachers about what school can do to help.
  5. Boost your confidence. Use a revision journal to record your progress. Recall things that have gone well in the past and the areas you have covered in your schedule. Make a note of things which you were unclear about but now understand. A journal is a good way to note any questions for your teacher the next time you have a lesson. You can also use it visualise your success.
  6. Eat healthily and stay hydrated. Build proper meal breaks into your schedule and time for exercise, even if it’s just going for a walk. Don’t forget to drink to stay hydrated while you revise. Avoid ‘energy’ drinks: they may give the illusion of alertness but actually impair your performance. People may say they help, but ask yourself why you never see an advert saying ‘Drink Red Bull: it helps you revise.’ It’s because it doesn’t and making such a claim in an advert would break the law.
  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. ‘Energy’ drinks or tablets are not a substitute for sleep.
  8. Friends & family. Let them know you have exams and need to revise. Keep in touch during those breaks you planned into your revision, but be strict with yourself about keeping revision time for revision.
  9. Avoid life changes. Stay on course with your revision. It’s quite normal to find that things you don’t have to revise become suddenly interesting, but avoid distractions and stay on track. Now is not 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 is preparing for action. Actors sometime use a technique to tackle stage fright. They tell themselves that these feelings are of excitement, rather than fear. You might try the same for exams – they are a chance for you to perform, to show the examiner what you have learned.

Helpful Links

Many organisations provide advice on revision, preparing for exams, and tackling exam stress. Here are some of the most accessible:

  • Students can get more help and advice on student life in general, including advice on taking exams, from the Student Minds website
  • These pages from the Mind website include a handy downloadable PDF document.
  • The Teen Mental Health website has more information about the stress response, the ‘myth of evil stress’ and a range of strategies for healthy stress management.
  • Parents and carers can find advice about supporting their children through exams on this area of the NHS Choices website

I hope you found this post useful – feel free to use and adapt it as you wish. If you know of other useful resources, or have your own advice, please let me know with a comment.

Image: Wikimedia

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Ten things to look forward to in the 2018 Summer Term

There’s plenty for teachers to look forward to in the 2018 Summer Term.

The Easter eggs may all be eaten, the summer holiday may seem a long way off, and the new term will bring the challenges of exams for many, but there’s also plenty to look forward to in the 2018 Summer Term.

Summer Term Top Ten

  1. For some students, the holidays will have been 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 you can keep on celebrating! In the Orthodox calendar, Easter Monday is on 9th April. That’s the day many schools start the Summer term, so perhaps you could save one last egg for then?
  3. Easter is traditionally a time for embracing new life and new beginnings. Why not consider our own professional practice – aspects that we might revitalise or new things we could try?
  4. We’re now well into British Summer Time, so there’s no more waking up before sunrise and coming home darkness. The days will be getting longer and (hopefully) warmer. Soaking up those rays helps lift our mood, so make some time to go outside each day.,Even on overcast days natural sunlight will do you good.
  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. Which plants are coming into bloom? Which animals do you notice? Take note of these small changes and you’ll soon see that no two days are alike.
  6. You’ve got a big decision on 19th May – Royal wedding or FA Cup Final? As it’s a Saturday, we won’t be getting an additional bank holiday, so whatever you decide, make the most of the weekend.
  7. There are plenty of key dates, holidays and festivals during the Summer term. These include Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) on 11th April, St. George’s Day on 23rd April, the Early May bank holiday (7th May), and Spring Bank Holiday (28th May). 20th May is both the Christian Pentecost and Jewish Shavuot. The Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan is on 15th June. In the UK, Fathers’ Day is on 17th June, and the Summer Solstice is on 21 June.
  8. You may have pupils taking exams this term, but at least you don’t have to sit them! I always hated exams and while I’m proud of my qualifications I’m also very pleased that the ticking clock and wobbly exam desk are well behind me. We all survived the process, so now we get to use our experience to help our students to succeed as well. I’ve written about tackling 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. Some schools have activities weeks, others move to their new timetables before the holiday. 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? Are there any dates I’ve missed out? Why not share with a comment?

Festival dates from timeanddate.com

Image: Rodger Caseby

Schools are enhanced by SEND pupils

My Twitter feed has recently included several posts from educators shocked by examples of schools which seem to exhibit a lack of inclusiveness. Vic Goddard (@vicgoddard), Brian Lightman (@brianlightman) and Stephen Drew (@StephenDrew72), among others, have expressed concern about schools which seek to dissuade prospective parents of students with special educational needs or disabilities from applying. This is done by suggesting, or even explicitly stating, that the School cannot meet the child’s needs, through what Stephen Drew has described as a ‘blatant anti-inclusion narratives’.

These posts have quite rightly highlighted the unfairness and indeed discriminatory nature of denying education to such children, but I would like to make an additional point. It is not just those children who miss out: the whole school community is made poorer by such moves that reduce the diversity of that community. As the Canadian Philosopher, and founder of the L’Arche communities, Jean Vanier put it:

As soon as we start selecting & judging people instead of welcoming them as they are – with their sometimes hidden beauty, as well as their more frequently visible weaknesses – we are reducing life, not fostering it.

Students with special needs enhance a school. They help students understand the diversity of our society, together with the challenges faced by those who do not represent the typical norm, not just in a hypothetical ‘this week we’re supporting a charity for people with X’ kind of way, but as a daily reality. Not least they will learn that nobody should be labelled by a condition, or seen merely as a problem because of it, but rather that we are each a unique combination of attributes, experiences, competencies and aspirations. As such, an inclusive school should see SEND provision as a welcome, positive expression of a healthy learning community.

Much of the comment I have read, and understandable frustration, concerns the actions of individual schools. While it is tempting to view the issue at this level (and only right that wrongdoing should be highlighted for action), I wonder if these actions by single schools aren’t a symptom of a systemic problem? Our current system of Progress 8 scores, Ofsted gratings, and league tables encourages competition between schools. I have written previously in praise of partnership and the good that can be achieved through cooperation. Perhaps the solution to providing truly inclusive educational provision, especially in times of financial hardship, lies in schools working together to pool expertise and resources. Imagine the power of a partnership that commits to securing the best possible outcomes for every child in the community it serves.

Explaining Easter: Why we celebrate the heart of Christianity with a rabbit that lays chocolate eggs.

The following is the background information for an Easter assembly I put together a couple of years ago. Feel free to use it if you are preparing an assembly or activity for Easter.

I wanted to do something a bit different, while marking the most important feast of the Christian calendar in an appropriate way. It proved popular with staff and students alike, the latter part prompting many students whose families originated from abroad to share some of their own cultural experiences. I have incorporated some of these, adding to those in the original assembly.

Why do we celebrate Jesus rising from the dead with a bunny and chocolate eggs?

EasterThe festival called ‘Easter’ in English celebrates Jesus rising from the dead on Easter Sunday, following the crucifixion, which is marked on Good Friday. It’s the most important feast of the Christian calendar. As hard as you look, though, you won’t find any references to bunnies, eggs, or chocolate in the Gospels. So why does the Easter Bunny bring us delicious chocolate eggs for Easter?

Eggs, new life, and barbaric Brits

Giving eggs in springtime predates Christianity. In many cultures, eggs represent new life, fertility and creation. In mythology, the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre found a wounded bird one winter. Realising that the bird could not survive the cold weather, she not only healed it but turned it into a hare. The hare did survive, and went on to lay coloured eggs the following Spring!

The early Christian church had problems bringing its message to the peoples of Northern Europe, who had a reputation as barbarians. The church decided to fix the dates of key Christian feasts near the times of the year when people were used to partying because of local celebrations. In Britain, Eostre’s festival became the Christian season of Easter. We retained the original name, whereas elsewhere Christians call it ‘Pascha’.

We forgot about the hare, but gave each other painted eggs as presents. Christians took on the egg as a symbol of resurrection. The egg can also represent the stone that was rolled away from Jesus’ tomb, or the empty shell (or half-eaten chocolate egg) can symbolise the empty tomb itself.

Chocolate eggs were introduced by confectionary manufacturers in the 19th Century and soon became very popular. The Easter bunny was reintroduced to Britain from the United States. The traditional hare, or Osterhase, who rewards good children with eggs, had been taken to America by German settlers, but the bunny has gradually lost the mythology of Eostre’s hare, and we now gloss over the idea of it actually laying all those eggs.

Celebrating Easter

There are many different traditions for celebrating Easter around the world:

  • Christians May keep a vigil on the evening of Maundy Thursday, remembering the night before Jesus died. They may then attend a service on Good Friday, remembering the crucifixion, and will go to church on Easter Sunday to celebrate Jesus rising from the dead. In the UK traditional Easter foods include hot cross buns, traditionally eaten on Good Friday, and Simnel Cake, which is topped with eleven marzipan eggs, representing Jesus’ disciples, minus Judas who betrayed him.
  • In Jerusalem, pilgrims may walk the route that Jesus is said to have walked to his crucifixion, the Via Dolorosa (‘Way of Sorrow’). Some carry wooden crosses, remembering that Jesus was made to carry the cross on which he was to be crucified.
  • Sometimes communities will put on Passion Plays which reenact the biblical events of the Easter period. In parts of the Philippines this is taken to an extreme where some participants allow themselves to be actually nailed to a cross.
  • Many children will have fun at Easter egg hunts on Easter Sunday and may have egg-rolling competitions. In the USA the president hosts an Easter egg roll on the White House lawn each year.

Egg painting is an Easter tradition in many European countries, as is bringing spring branches of shrubs and trees into the house and decorating them with painted eggs. In Russia and Eastern Europe eggs are often dyed red and patterns are carved into them. A modern trend is to paint pictures of politicians or celebrities onto eggs.

  • In the Czech Republic and Slovakia boys whip girls legs with decorated willow twigs on Good Friday.
  • In Poland boys pour water on people. Tradition says that a girl who gets drenched will be married within the year. In Hungary this ‘sprinkling’ has been replaced by a spray of perfume.
  • On the Greek island of Corfu, Holy Saturday is ‘Pot Throwing Day’. Earthen ware pots and plates are thrown from balconies to smash on the ground below to greet the spring.
  • In many Caribbean countries, kites are flown on Good Friday, symbolising Jesus’ ascension to heaven.

If you have any other Easter traditions, please let me know and I’ll add them to the list.

However you are spending the holiday, have a very Happy Easter!

Images

Easter Bunny: Pixabay

Calvary: Public Domain Pictures

Painted Easter eggs: Pixabay

Decorated branches: Wikimedia