14 ways to help pupils combat exam anxiety

Worrying about exam performance can motivate pupils to revise, but too much anxiety can be debilitating, psychologists say

There are certain events that, each year, herald the imminence of summer. Light, bright evenings; the first sighting of a swallow; rhododendrons blooming. And sweaty-palmed teenagers milling anxiously in front of the school hall.

Adults tend to assume that anxiety is inevitable among GCSE and A-level pupils at this time of year. But, says Vivian Hill, a practising psychologist and academic at the UCL Institute of Education, it is not quite so straightforward.

Anxiety can motivate teenagers to revise, Ms Hill says. But it can also play a negative role: research has shown that higher levels of anxiety among key stage 4 pupils was associated with lower performance at GCSE.

Teachers, she believes, are ideally placed to ensure that pupils are not debilitated by anxiety – or by a lack of it. She offers some tips here:

  1. Teenagers pick up stress from the adults around them
    As a teacher, you may feel under huge pressure at this time of year. Try and keep this from pupils as much as possible.
  2. Self-awareness is key
    What message is your own behaviour sending to pupils, either directly or indirectly?
  3. Stressed parents make for stressed pupils
    Help parents to understand that what they think of as supportive encouragement may be experienced by pupils as toxic levels of pressure.
  4. Remember that some stress is valuable
    There are always some pupils who are too laidback about the approaching exams. Remind them that, if they can motivate themselves to study, then their exams will be behind them and they can move on. If they don’t study, they may find themselves faced with interminable resits.
  5. Revision can feel punitive to pupils
    Their lives are on hold for several weeks. Remind parents that this might not be the best time to take the rest of the family on an outing, leaving one child revising at home alone.
  6. Revision is also an isolating experience
    Encourage parents to make the revising teenager feel part of the family: just bringing an occasional drink upstairs or putting an encouraging hand on a shoulder when you pass on the stairs can make a difference.
  7. …though not for all pupils
    Talk to parents about ways to help their children find a quiet space in which to revise. If parents are also sacrificing something they enjoy – evening TV, for example – that will also help teenagers feel less alone.
  8. Don’t forget low-achieving pupils
    Endless practice tests can take a toll on self-esteem. Think carefully about the feedback you give low-achieving pupils: even at this late stage, it needs to be constructive, rather than a constant reminder that they are not up to standard.
  9. After-school revision groups can play a dual role
    They can focus study, but they can also provide a place where pupils’ levels of anxiety can be managed and controlled, if parents are unable to do this at home.
  10. And…breathe
    Consider leading pupils in mindfulness exercises before each exam. These can include breathing activities and thinking activities. Alternatively, start and end revision sessions with a period of relaxation.
  11. …especially over breakfast
    Run a breakfast club before exams, to ensure that pupils arrive in the exam hall well-fed. These clubs can also incorporate distracting activities, to help pupils relax.
  12. Don’t forget fun
    If you are running a half-term study group, consider including a fun activity – even if it is just watching a film together – at the end of the week. This reminds pupils that there is still a life outside exams.
  13. It’s good to talk
    Provide an opportunity for pupils to come together and exchange helpful revision tips. It is important that this does not become a moaning session: it should be about reducing stress, rather than increasing it.
  14. It’s sometimes good to talk one-to-one
    Particularly stressed pupils could benefit from a supportive, one-to-one conversation with a teacher. Often, all it takes to dissipate anxiety is to talk about it to someone else.

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