Surviving exam season Part 1: helping students

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Exam season is a stressful time, for students, parents and teachers. Emotions run high, tempers fray and seemingly small things can cause an explosion of epic proportions.

Helping students (and indeed sometimes their parents too!) manage the exam period effectively is incredibly important, as whilst a certain level of nerves is beneficial to performing in the exams, unchecked hysteria can lead to mid-exam melt downs and disappointments come results day.

So how can we help our students ‘Keep Calm & Carry On’ until their exams are over?

My coffee mug...good advice for a History teacher!

My coffee mug…good advice for a History teacher!

Organisation

  • When are the exams for each year group? How long until each one?
  • Do they have a revision timetable? What intervention sessions are available to them before/after school?
  • Are there an appropriate study spaces/a working environment in your school that is conducive to revision?
  • Will students get study leave? If so, how long before their exams?
  • How are exams managed? Is there a procedure to ensure a smooth start and finish? How do students know where to go? Who from ML /SMT will be supervising transitions between exams & lessons?

T.L.C

Emotions will inevitably get the better of some students during exam season, for good or ill, and it’s important that they have a safe (and manageable) outlet for that. Whether that’s you as their teacher, their Form Tutor/Mentor, the schools Pastoral Team or Counsellor, or even just a quiet space where they can sit and have some down time.

Also, never underestimate the power of wishing students good luck as they go into their exam, offering a smile or a word of encouragement, or indeed being there to ask how it went when they come out again (actually just being there, being seen to be there for them, is enough sometimes).

Tough love

Sometimes students need a tough message, delivered in the right way, to get them back on the right track. Tact is incredibly important here, as without it, a well-intended pep-talk could be interpreted as a prophecy of impending, inevitable failure!

They may not want to go to revision sessions, they may not want to be in school every day, but its our job to ensure that we’re firm but fair, and that every student gets the best possible life chances. Even if that means sometimes doing things they don’t want to do.

The necessities

At this time of year I always keep a stash of essentials in my classroom cupboard; things that students always seem to need but have forgotten and also some small comforts.

In terms of essentials, I keep a box of tissues, baby wipes, black pens & pencils, rubbers and highlighters. Students can borrow them for revision, or during the exam if they need to (usually I get it all back!).

In terms of small comforts; I keep water & plastic cups, cereal bars and fruit. It’s worrying how many students do not eat breakfast, and often go all day without eating! And it’s also important to remember our humanity – a small kindness goes a long way.

(Whilst I recognise this is not to everyone’s liking, it has served my students well over the last few years, and as I teach mostly A Level it works quite well. It’s important we do what works for us in our own context.)

Structure:to your lessons & to the school day generally

Even at this time of year, lessons should have a clear focus, and structured, purposeful activities. There is, of course, a time and a place for students to do independent revision, but spending whole lessons doing so, week-in, week-out, is not productive. If you’ve got lessons left until your exams, why not re-teach some of the most difficult content? Or add more depth to previously taught topics? What about spending time unpicking exam technique and practising timed work, or studying exemplar answers?

Keep your cool

Regardless of whether your class is of GCSE or A Level students, the chances are that they know you well enough by now to pick up on your mood. If you’re worried, they’ll worry. Of course we might well be worried, and with good reason, (Student A has been off sick, or Student B hasn’t done much revision, Student C is tracking below target…) but fear is infectious and it can also be paralysing.

Time to put on your poker face and bluff it out if you have to!

Never, ever give up on a student

It’s absolutely crucial that we persist with every student, right till the end, till the moment they walk through the doors of the exam hall. They need to know that whilst we can’t do it for them, we can support them every step of the way.

If we assume good intent from our students, and we assume that they want to do well (even if they hide it behind a surly exterior) then our persistence and our encouragement might just pay off. Maybe not in exam grades, but in other, sometimes more valuable ways.

As they say, it’s not over until the Exams Officer sings….