Now’s the time to support students with revision and exam stress

20 May 2022, 6:00

Here are five ways to talk to your learners about coping with high-stakes assessment, writes Lesley French

As many students in further education settings prepare for their GCSE re-sits, BTECs, T Levels or A-levels, they may be going through a heightened period of anxiety.

There has been unprecedented disruption to their community, and the whole education system, from the pandemic. There has been a huge toll on teaching staff along with parents and young people.

Many young people have been through periods of worry and uncertainty because of these experiences and have not had the continuity and support in the run-up to exams they would have had prior to the pandemic.

We hope that the following advice and suggestions will help college staff in supporting their students during this time:

Normalise anxiety

It is common for most students to experience anxiety in relation to a stressful event, like exams. Students can feel they are the only ones not managing, when the reality is most will be feeling anxiety.

Anxiety is a normal human response experienced through thoughts, feelings and physical sensations. Anxiety can affect a student’s ability to concentrate, impair their attention span, and therefore affect revision and learning abilities.

Make sure students understand what anxiety is – that it alerts us to danger and helps our body prepare to deal with it – and how to get support should they need it.

Remind students that thoughts are not facts

It can be common to have negative thoughts such as: “I am going to fail – I am the worst student in this subject”. This thinking needs to be addressed with real evidence, for example, reminding them of their positive strengths and their previous experiences of academic and learning achievement.

Adolescence is a time of rapid developmental change, and emotions feel intense and permanent. Avoid minimising or dismissing a student’s concerns, even if they feel disproportionate to you.

Address their phone, screen and social media use

This is one of the biggest distractions for periods of revision and exams. Acknowledge this is a difficult challenge, but also that it can be really helpful to take a break by putting their phone in another room.

Factor in the use of devices as a positive reward for a period of study, when students can connect with friends.

Provide advice and support to create a routine

Stay calm, supportive and offer practical help. Assist students with drawing up a realistic schedule, which includes taking breaks and relaxation time.

Encourage them to have a tidy workspace where they can follow their revision plan.

Make sure they take time for self-care

Relaxation strategies work with practice – this can include controlled or calm breathing, progressive muscle relaxation or grounding techniques. For example, five things they can see, four things they can touch around them, three things they can hear, two things they can smell, one thing they can taste.

Exercise and fresh air matter – there is lots of evidence that this improves mental health, wellbeing and our ability to cope with stress.

Making sure students eat well and get enough sleep are all important things they need to do over the exam period.

According to the Association of Colleges 2021 report, 90 per cent of colleges reported an increase in students diagnosed with mental health conditions in the past year.

The Anna Freud Centre has developed resources specifically to support college staff with the most common mental health issues they see in their students, including exam stress and anxiety.

The Anna Freud Centre’s schools and colleges early-support service is also running free webinars for parents and carers prior to exam results being released.

The same workshop is being run on August 1, 3, 5, 8, 10 and 12, twice a day at 9:30am and 1pm.  

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