Surviving Exam Season

By Chris Nash- International School Principal, Beijing.
BA (Cantab), PGCE, MA ( Education Management), NPQH.

As we enter the summer exam season, I’ve looked back over 20 years of preparing students for exams and here are my top ten tips for managing the inevitable rising stress levels:

1/ Take a learner-centred approach by seeing the exam period through the students’ eyes.  Then you can demonstrate flexibility and support by removing unnecessary demands on their time and focus. Remember meta-cognition.  You need to free up cognitive capacity and motivational capacity to take on the extra load of exam preparation.

2/ Athletes talk about being ‘in the zone’ – a carefully managed period of time of maximum focus around a competition.  Share this analogy with students and discuss a variety of strategies to enable them to get ‘into the zone’

3/ Talk up well-being.  To maintain peak focus and exam performance students need a healthy life-style with good diet, good sleep patterns and exercise.  Students can draw up personalised Exam Well-being Plans with the assistance of teachers or mentors from older year groups.  One school I was in insisted on handing out bananas to students during the exam period with the idea that the extra potassium would provide a boost.  I’m not sure about the science, but knowing that the school cares enough will definitely increase motivation.

4/ Identify vulnerable students and make personalised plans for them.  There will be students for whom the exam period is simply traumatic.  Of course, we should consider the welfare of such students, but panic spreads socially.  One student with a negative mind-set can influence swathes of less confident students. A personalised plan, including one on one time with a mentor could prevent this.

5/ Free up teacher time:  Extra classes, small group interventions and one on ones can both raise performance and also reduce stress levels.  For example, during the exam period I close all unnecessary meetings and delay any ongoing PD programmes so that staff have maximum capacity to meet student needs.

6/ Do everything you can to prevent a culture of ‘last minute cramming’.  Here are several strategies:

  1. Mastery learning: teachers and students identify and fill gaps in knowledge and understanding throughout the year.
  2. Spiral Curriculum / Distributed Learning: Teachers design a circular rather than a linear curriculum, with regular, distributed opportunities to return to earlier units or topics in order to review prior learning and deepen understanding by connecting former learning to the current topic.
  3. Retrieval Practice: Teachers design activities which require students to ‘retrieve’ and use knowledge and understanding from across the whole course.

7/ Past paper practice: Say what you like about ‘teaching to the test’, this oldie but goldie really delivers.  The key is effective marking and feedback to identify and correct gaps.  Through good quality formative assessment of past paper performance, a teacher can build up a reliable profile of individual strengths and weaknesses.  Past paper practice can be made into active, student-centred learning if you develop the students as peer assessors of each other’s papers.  When a teacher has diagnosed weaknesses, tailored past papers can be designed to focus on areas that need improvement.  Improving scores on a succession of past papers can significantly improve confidence and reduce pre-exam nerves.

8/ Involve parents: At a suitable point prior to the exam period, organise a meeting for parents of exam candidates.  Share techniques for effective revision Allow parents to talk about and share their own anxieties.  It’s a great idea to have a few parents of older cohorts there who can share ideas and tips from the family perspective.  Identify and support particularly anxious parents.  High levels of stress at home will prevent effective revision and accompany the child into the exam room.

9/ Develop the metacognitive skills of your students: Self-regulated students will be better able to plan and manage their own revision time.  They will know how to manage distractions and maximise focus.  Self-regulated students know their own preferred learning style and can select effective learning techniques that will maximise their performance.  Self-regulated learners will monitor their own performance during the exams and are more likely to identify and correct errors or be aware that they need to manage time effectively.  A student with good metacognition is more likely to leave an exam and review her or his performance, making improvements before the next exam.

10/ Give some light at the end of the tunnel:  In my school we have a carefully created tradition of following the exam period by two very different activities – Study Tour and Sports Week, before we open up the September courses in the final two weeks of term.  Students and staff understand that we need them to push their academic and learning focus to the limits during the exam period and then it’s ok to ‘re-balance’ afterwards.  It’s likely that students will have neglected physical exercise – so the Sports Week re-invigorates them.  It’s likely that during the exam preparation and exam period they will not have been outside or connected with arts and culture – so Study Tour gets them back into the real world and in our school re-connecting with the lives of others as they take up volunteering.  To us, it says ‘there’s more to life than exams’. 

And there is!

Photo credit: Andy Barbour

One thought on “Surviving Exam Season

  1. Thank you to Chris Nash for these valuable insights and tips for school leaders. I am wondering if we revisit these in 12 months with the development of AI, how many will look the same, or have been influenced with rapid changes in technology we are experiencing? Watch this space!

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