How do you cope with exam stress and pressure?
It’s exam time! You have worked countless hours over the academic year, completed the course content in time and contacted home and devised revision plans. After-school revision sessions have been blood, sweat and tears but now as exams edge closer, the pressure is on.
How to survive the exam season
Here I outline some ways to not only cope with your first exam season but also to thrive.
1. Final preparation
You are on the final countdown of lessons, what do you cover? How do you cover it? Have you finished the specification content yet?
It is important to remember that you are the expert and you only have a finite amount of time with the students, therefore you need to prioritise content that students will struggle to revise properly on their own.
It is also important to use all the masses of data you have doubtless accumulated over the year to weed out the misconceptions your class has.
Ask your experienced colleagues what content frequently trips students up and how to vary your revision sessions – one of my colleagues shared a fantastic ‘speed dating’ session where some students act as ‘experts’ and explain topics to other students who go around the room filling in a booklet. This was easily one of my favourite revision sessions and it only happened because I asked a colleague what they were doing.
2. Trust your students
This one is much easier said than done, but the truth is that the students are the ones who sit the exam, they are the ones putting in the work at home. They are the ones who open the envelope in several weeks’ time.
One of the hardest things you’ll have to do is let them take the reins, giving them ownership of their future and results. As soon as they reach that exam hall your job is done, and it is all down to them, some will perform better than expected, some will not.
Your trust in them will give them confidence as well, they need to know that you fully believe they are capable and can get through this challenging time in their lives. You’ve been with them every step of the way gearing up for this moment: it will define your relationship with them.
While there is much controversy about out of school revision sessions currently, I believe it is far more important to be present and available for your students in school time. If you have developed strong and positive relationships with students it is natural that they will see you as a source of strength during difficult times. Be there for them, talk them through their fears, support them during their panics, encourage them to keep working through the lulls.
By just giving a short amount of your time to students emotionally, you can support them in a way other teachers may not be able to. If you cannot give up free time sometimes just giving students a reassuring email will do a lot of good.
I would also strongly recommend attending results morning (if your school allows it). I found it an eye-opening and heart warming experience.
The exams are done, you’ve hunted down every student you can to get the gossip about how they felt it went. You’ve scoured the exam paper trying to extrapolate how many marks students would get and where the questions are harsh or nice, you’ve debriefed colleagues and settled on what you think the outcome will be.
This is the point where you need to relax, you will feel a wave of euphoria and relief overcome you as the job is done. Take advantage of this time. Recognise just how much physical and mental energy the exam season drains from you. Congratulate yourself for getting through it! Get yourself a treat or two as a reward, you’ve earned it.
Self-reflection is essential. Ask yourself: how can I make next year even better? Think about your learning curves and what you can adapt to serve students more fully next year.
My personal reflections have focused around helping students revise more effectively. To support their learning and retention I have researched techniques such as dual coding, interleaving and retrieval practice. These now feature heavily in many of my lessons right from the start of the course.
While you’re looking at what you could improve, you should also remember to celebrate success! You have guided students through their learning journey, provided them with opportunities to further themselves and supported them through one of the most difficult times in their lives.
Take pride in your collective successes and strive to improve your collective failings. Take a break and rest well because there is another cohort that needs you equally as much just around the corner.