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

Advertisements

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

Investing in Secondary PE: good for both health and academic success

In January, I wrote a post about the clear evidence for the link between regular physical exercise and improved academic performance by children in school.

Last month, the Youth Sport Trust (YST) published the report of its survey of UK secondary schools: PE Provision in Secondary Schools 2018. The report, based on a survey of teachers in secondary schools, highlights a worrying decline in Physical Education:

  • Curriculum time for PE has declined over time, most markedly at KS4.
  • Curriculum time for PE reduces as students move from KS3 to KS4, and beyond.
  • The main reason given for the decline was that additional time was given to core subjects or EBacc subjects.

The YST report concludes that these findings confirm a continuing ‘spiralling downward trend’ in the curriculum time allocated to PE in secondary schools, and that the good work seen in primary schools was rapidly undone. Primary schools will welcome the continuation of the Primary PE and Sport Premium, but there is currently no equivalent financial incentive for secondary schools.

The report focuses on the negative impact this will have on students’ health, particularly in the light of the Government’s Childhood Obesity Plan which aims for an hour of physical activity a day; 30 minutes of which are in school. The average for KS4 quoted in the report equates to barely 20 minutes per day, most likely achieved in one or two sessions a week. While this is hugely important for the health of young people and the future impact of obesity on the NHS and other services, I believe that it will also be detrimental to academic performance in school. Research has shown that devoting curriculum time to physical exercise rather than having a detrimental effect on GCSE subjects, is in fact linked to improved performance by students in English, Maths and Science (Booth et al, 2014).

The YST report calls on the government and school leaders to do more to promote PE and the benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle. I think it’s also worth adding that we should take time to understand the research showing that what may appear to be an easy “quick fix” to meet academic performance targets is likely to be counter-productive.

How schools can help tackle knives

I wrote this post in February 2018, then updated it in April to include information about the Home Office #KnifeFree campaign launched in March. This new UK-wide anti-knife campaign picks up on many of the themes of the Scottish No Knives, Better Lives campaign, which I mentioned in the original post, and forms part of the governments forthcoming Serious Violence Strategy.

Knives and Children

This post is about a difficult topic: knives and children. Often thought of as an issue for schools in urban areas, the last couple of years have seen an upsurge in knife carrying and knife crime among children and young people across England and Wales, with knife crime increasing by 21% overall in 2017, despite increases in sentencing. In part, this has been driven by ‘County lines’ operations by drug gangs seeking to recruit children outside of large cities. As a 2017 National Crime Agency report describes, ‘County lines’ is characterised, among other features, by the exploitation of children and vulnerable people and the use of violence, with 85% of police forces reporting drug transportation and knife carrying being synonymous. The Children’s Society has more information about County lines on their website and have also produced a guide for parents who are worried that their children might be being criminally exploited.

Prompted by a lack of publicly available demographic information about those who died from knife attacks, The Guardian newspaper ran a Beyond the Blade campaign throughout last year. This collected both figures on knife crime and collected individual stories of those affected by its effects. As it turned out, 39 children and teenagers killed during the campaign, the worst year in 40 years. For each of these young lives lost there is a poignant story of a lost future and a family left to grieve.

Positive news from Scotland

In contrast to the worrying upward trend in knife crime reported in England and Wales, the Figures in Scotland are in decline, with no deaths of young people due to knife attacks in 2017. Scotland has a national approach to knife crime which addresses it as a social policy issue, rather than just a criminal justice issue, and attempts to address root causes. This approach was originally adopted in response to a 2005 UN report identifying Scotland as the most violent country in the developed world. The Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) has adopted a public health approach where the police, health, social services & education work together to address the issue by tackling the causal factors. Scotland also has a national knife crime information website: No knives, better lives. It provides information for young people, as well as separate sections for parents and practitioners, and allows conversations to start and information to be given, both anonymously. It’s well worth giving it a look, whether or not you live in Scotland.

This approach has had considerable success. During 2006 – 2011, 40 children and teenagers were killed in Scotland, but during 2011 – 2016 this number had reduced to just 8. Incidents of individuals carrying knives dropped by two thirds in same period.

Initially, policing and prosecution led the approach with harder sentencing and more stop-and-search, although less than 2% found with knife. The VRU did not stop there however. The police mapped all the gangs. Those at risk of prosecution were invited to a meeting which started by warning gang members that if thy continued would be convicted and go to prison, but then went on to educate. Police officers spoke about the injuries they saw and bereaved mother spoke about the loss of her son to a stabbing. The gang members were then offeredhelp – education, employment, housing. VRU is state funded, not charities competing for funding.

I think the positive impact of the national, collaborative approach taken in Scotland offers a model for the future in the rest of the UK. We haven’t yet got a national strategy, but we can make a start where we are by using the same elements:

  • Education about the impact of knife use and the penalties under law
  • A strong stance on prevention
  • Lines of communication and approach for children and young people
  • Collaborative work to provide real alternatives and a way out for those involved

What about schools?

So, what does this mean for those of us working in schools who have seen an increase in knife carrying and maybe violence among young people, perhaps as a result of ‘county lines’ linked activity? These are my thoughts on what is important:

1. Recognise that the behaviours we see are part of a bigger picture. It may also be the result of exploitation (whether or not the young people recognise it). The solution to such behaviour is far likely to come from a coordinated multi-agency approach, involving police, schools, social services and other parties. Schools can play a key role in working with others to help children understand the risks associated with knives.

2. Take a strong stance on safety. Of course there is a very real safety issue here, and I’m certainly not proposing that knife carrying is tolerated because those doing it may be exploited and/or afraid. The Scottish model shows us, however, that a strong legal stance is unlikely to work on its own, but is successful when combined with education and real initiatives to provide young people with a way out. Schools also need to think about how seriously they take the safety of pupils and staff: there are many institutions that would permanently exclude a pupil for possession of a knife, but are reluctant to use metal detectors (wands or knife arches) for fear of how this will be perceived. The DFE has recently updated the guidance on Searching, screening and confiscation with a particular emphasis on tackling bullying. This new guidance confirms the legal right of schools to use metal detectors without the need for consent from parents or pupils, and to refuse entry to those who do not comply.

2. Work with others, not in isolation. When a crisis hits a community, it can be tempting for everyone to hunker down in their own silos. This can sometimes lead to a blame game which solves nothing and hinders the communication and cooperation between education, police, social services, and the community which are vital to success. Schools also need to work with each other, recognising that issues affect whole communities, rather than just individual ‘problem’ schools. Teachers in particular can play a vital role in picking up early warning signs – even in helping to map involvement within a community – and communicating these to other agencies.

3. Help provide a way out to a better life. Distraction from drug-related and or gang activities can be useful, but there is a lot of evidence to indicate that once children are entangled financially, this is unlikely to be successful. The VRU project went as far as rehoming people when necessary. Local projects may not have the facility to do this, but schools can play a big part in providing alternatives through education and training, even for youngsters who may be the most challenging.

I also think it’s high time that teachers and school leaders started discussing this nationally. I suspect that the problems that have emerged for schools in Oxford, where I work, are being mirrored in towns and cities across the country – anywhere in easy reach of a big city by rail or road. Some great work is emerging in tackling knives, drugs and gang culture. There needs to be a way of sharing this.

April 2018 Update – #KnifeFree Campaign

In March, the Home Office launched a new anti-knife campaign called #KnifeFree, using advertising on social media and digital channels and the new KnifeFree website. This campaign draws on the Scottish No Knives, Better Lives format to tackle misconceptions about knife carrying and to provide routes to advice and further help. In particular, it uses real-life stories of young people who have made the choice not to carry knives to explore the consequences of carrying a knife, and to inspire young people to make the positive choice not to. The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd has announced that this campaign will form part of the governments forthcoming Serious Violence Strategy.

I think that this campaign to raise awareness of the consequences of knife carrying is a welcome step towards tackling the issue. The successes of the approach in Scotland have been achieved through an integrated approach. Advertising campaigns and websites formed only one part of this and I believe that the rest of the UK will need to adopt a similarly collaborative approach between services, at both national and local level, if it is to achieve the same success in reducing the number of deaths, injuries, and violent crime among young people.

Want to improve academic performance? Look to PE.

There is much debate among teachers and academic researchers about factors which influence cognitive functioning and academic attainment. Nature or nurture, traditional or progressive methods (whatever they mean), growth mindset, direct instruction – everyone has a view. If possible, there is even more debate about the quality of evidence supporting each claim.

In this context, it is perhaps surprising that one area that recent research shows has a positive impact on cognitive performance, and even exam results, is often ignored: physical exercise. A review article on the exercise effects on the brain and cognition published in 2008 in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, concluded that research across cognitive neuroscience and medical disciplines indicated that physical exercise can lead to increased physical and mental health throughout life (Holman, Erickson and Kramer, 2008). A review of 79 studies in this area by Chang et al (2012) concluded that exercise has specific positive effects on cognitive performance both during the exercise period and afterwards, even after a delay.

Cognitive effects in school age children

The majority is studies featured in these reviews featured older adults rather than children, with many focusing on mitigation of the effects of ageing in a medical context. In considering the educational effects of physical activity on school age children, numerous studies, including a paper by Dave Ellemberg & Mathilde St-Louis-Deschênes (2010) published in Psychology of Exercise and Sport, show significant positive outcomes. This study of 7 year old and 10 year old boys, compared the effect of 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on reaction time and choice tests with 30 minutes of watching TV. The results showed a significant positive effect of both measures, but especially the choice tests – the measure most resembling a school task.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has not summarised research on physical activity in its Teaching and Learning Toolkit, but does include physical development approaches in their Early Years Toolkit, with the focus primarily on growth and physical development. The EEF concludes that there is, as yet, little high quality research into the educational effects physical activity, but notes that the costs are low and that there is some evidence that young children learn better after physical activity. They recommend that early years settings consider if active play and physical exercise are integrated into each day.

How much physical activity is needed to have an effect?

Research shows that to have a positive effect on cognitive performance (as well as a range of health benefits), periods of exercise do not need to be long but they need to be repeated regularly, and an at least moderate level of aerobic activity needs to be achieved. In a review of over 850 studies, Strong et al (2005) recommended 60 minutes a day of varied, age-appropriate aerobic exercise was effective, and in their review Keays & Allison (1995) found that a similar period 3-5 times a week was effective for Canadian school children. In a large-scale study of Californian elementary school students, Carlson et al (2015) found that just 30 minutes a day had a positive impact on learning through increased attention and reduced off-task behaviour. They proposed that this could be achieved through a mix of classroom exercise breaks and extending opportunities for physical activity during existing school recess. The research team made several recommendations for implementing a programme in schools (see the reading list below).

Does this improve attainment?

The short answer is yes. An influential study by Trudeau and Shepard (2008) argued that sacrificing PE time from the timetable would not improve academic performance whereas increasing time devoted to PE would produce numerous health and behavioural benefits whilst not hindering academic outcomes. In a study as part of the large-scale Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, Booth et al found that regular physical exercise in 11-16 year olds in fact produced significant increases in attainment in English, Maths and Science, and especially for girls in Science. This study indicates that devoting a little more time each day for exercise, even if this is rescheduled from other subjects, would have a measurable positive impact on grades in academic subjects.

What can schools do?

Despite the finding of such studies, PE remains a subject that is sometimes reduced in the face of other curriculum demands. There is considerable evidence to support the introduction of daily physical exercise into the school day. This could be as little as 30 minutes per day. It could be achieved through a mixture of existing break time activity and additional scheduled time, but the evidence points to the greatest impact when children are led by a trained adult. Given the benefits that regular physical activity can provide across all subjects, there are several points school leaders should consider if they want to implement this:

  • Duration of physical activity – at least 30 minutes a day, each day
  • Type of activity – at least moderate aerobic activity, age-appropriate and varied from session to session
  • Implementation – can be achieved through a mixture of existing PE lessons, physical activity breaks within the existing curriculum, and opportunities for activity at break and lunchtime
  • Staffing – Staff members leading physical activity do not need to be specialists (unless a particular activity demands it), but they do need to be trained. Your PE specialists can play a valuable role

I don’t believe that for most schools, increasing physical activity in school would not require wholesale readjustment of the curriculum or the school day. Relatively minor adjustments, but involving all teachers, have the potential to achieve real measurable benefits.

Update, March 2018

I wrote this piece in January 2018. In February the Youth Sport Trust published a report on PE Provision in Secondary Schools. Worryingly, this report revealed a continuing decline in the time allocated to physical education in UK secondary schools. I have written about the implications of this decline here.

Useful Reading

This isn’t intended as a comprehensive bibliography, but as a useful resource for those who want to read further. I have only include publications that are available without a licence or payment. Some are under Creative Commons licences. If you know of interesting studies I have missed, please let me know.

Associations between objectively measured physical activity and academic attainment in adolescents from a UK cohort. Booth, J.N. et al (2003) British Journal of Sports Medicine 48:3.

Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition. Charles H. Hillman, Kirk I. Erickson, and Arthur F. Kramer (2008) Nature Reviews Neuroscience 9:58-65.

EEF Early Years Toolkit – summarises research into the impact of early years approaches, including physical activity.

Implementing 10-minute classroom physical activity breaks in California elementary schools. Jessica Engelberg et al. Presentation based on the California elementary school study.

Ten things to look forward to in the Spring term of 2018

Summer may feel like a very distant prospect. Don’t despair, though, there’s plenty to look forward to at the start of the Spring term 2018.

We have welcomed New Year in with Storm Dylan, and with the new term about to start, the long, warm days of Summer may feel like a very distant prospect. Don’t despair, though, there’s plenty to look forward to at the start of the Spring term 2018.

Here’s my top ten list:

  1. Christmas isn’t over yet! Christmas isn’t just a single day, but lasts until 6th January (twelfth night). Traditionally the decorations stay up till then.
  2. If that isn’t enough for you, Orthodox Christmas Day this year is on Sunday 7th January.
  3. Why not take the opportunity to reconnect with friends or family with whom you may have just exchanged Christmas or new year greetings, but hadn’t seen much during 2017?
  4. Like me, you may have received books as Christmas presents and will be looking forward to reading them. This year, I’m also going to get to grips with all the books on the shelves that I bought but didn’t actually get round to reading. Why not get together with some colleagues and start a book club or book swap in the staff room? This can be a way to help achieve workable wellbeing.
  5. The return to school will be marked by both pupils and colleagues sporting their gifts from Santa. You could exploit the entertainment value here by  playing ‘Spot the new jumper/tie/shoes’, etc. A variant it guessing how long colleagues will take to notice your new item – I don’t know why this is, but whenever I wear anything new it is only noticed on the third time I wear it). With pupils you can use pencil cases or stationary to monitor trends in popular culture – I’m betting on The Last Jedi.
  6. Setting your alarm again for the start of term may be, well, alarming, but remember that from now on the days will be getting longer. Getting outside in daylight each day will help beat the winter blues. Even if the sky is overcast, that natural sunlight will do you good. British Summer Time starts again on Sunday 25th March (clocks go forward 1 hour).
  7. While you’re out and about, take some time to connect with nature. Look out for the little signs that spring is on it’s way and take notice of small changes – already you may see some leaves of bulbs poking through the soil, or some buds on trees or shrubs swelling before they blossom.
  8. The start of a new year is an ideal time to commit to your own wellbeing. Why not choose some positive new year resolutions for looking after yourself and others, Or take a look at #Teacher5adayNew Year Pledges from @MartynReah for ideas for teacher wellbeing
  9. While some ‘wet breaks’ are inevitable at this time of year, it’s not all cold misery this term – there are plenty of feasts, festivals and holy days – this year many clustered around February/March in a multicultural medley. Here are some dates in 2017: Burns’ Night is on Thursday 25 Jan, Shrove Tuesday (pancake day) on Tuesday 13 February is closely followed by Valentine’s Day on Wednesday 14 February, and then by Chinese New Year on Friday 16 February (Year of the dog). Purim starts on Wednesday 28 February, ending on the next evening. St David’s Day is also on Thursday 1 Mar, and the Festival of Holi begins that evening and ends on the evening of Friday 2nd March. Mothering Sunday in the UK is on 11th March this year, with St Patrick’s Day on the following Saturday, 17 Mar. Good Friday is on 30 March, with Easter Sunday on 1 April.
  10. The best thing about working in education this year and every other, is knowing that what we do makes a real positive difference for the children in our care. For some of them, the school holidays can be difficult and, although they might not always show it, they’ll have been be looking forward to the new term and to seeing us again. Make it a good one.

So, what are you looking forward to this Spring? Have I missed any key dates from this list? Let me know and I’ll add them.

Happy New Year!