Dealing with Exam Anxiety

“So you don’t love exams then, Dr Harris?” is a question I am regularly asked.  And I do try to be honest in my response, because I personally loathe exams.  I am often conflicted because I am a big part of a system which assesses knowledge and understanding by the outdated method of sitting for three hours at an uncomfortably small desk and writing down whatever can be remembered; and considers this a valid way of judging whether someone is a suitable candidate for a university education.  However, such is the current system and my role is to help students navigate this successfully.
I am not exaggerating when I tell you that for more than ten years after my A level exams (the British equivalent of ATAR) I woke up on a weekly basis  with awful, sweaty nightmares involving turning up to exams without a functioning pen, seeing questions I couldn’t read because they had been written in Russian or forgetting to get dressed appropriately and arriving in my pyjamas.  Happily none of these events happened in real life – at the time I didn’t even think that my end of school exams were particularly stressful - but nothing other than exams has ever given me genuine nightmares for more than a decade, so they must have affected me badly in some way.
Mr Evans and I are currently planning a talk for our Year 11 and 12 students, aiming to reduce their assessment anxiety.  It’s one of our strategic intents, to help students deal with this issue - not because of my personal issues with it, but because we recognise that it does actually affect a significant number of our students.
To reduce their anxiety about exams and other assessments, it’s really important that all our girls and boys believe that their end of school results do not define who they are as a person.  An excellent ATAR score does form a convenient and simple way of getting to university if that’s the desired next step, but I recently read that only 26% of students are achieving university entrance through their ATAR and there are many other pathways available these days.  A disappointing ATAR score is by no means the end of educational prospects and as people, they will be judged far more on their values and what they achieve in life.  Do they have friends?  Are they compassionate and caring?  Have they travelled and learnt about life and thought about what’s important?
Dealing with exam anxietyOf course, in my role at school the ATAR results are a big focus and my aim is that I support students to achieve the very best results they can.  I suppose this is the reason that students think I must love exams, when all they hear from me is my urging them to get organised and create a study schedule and do their best.  But I can guarantee that within six weeks of leaving school at the end of the year, nobody will have any interest whatsoever in anybody’s ATAR score.
And the reason that I am so enthusiastic about study schedules and plans is that I’ve noticed that for many students, anxiety and stress are reduced when they feel more in control and know what they should be doing when.
I’ve made a list of things which may help empower your daughter or son and help them feel more in control, thereby reducing their exam anxiety.  You could use this list as the start of a conversation with them about whether they are feeling stressed about the imminent assessments.
6 tips to empower students and help them take control:
1.  Have some realistic goals. 
What are you going to achieve this year?  What’s most important to you?  What is success/personal excellence for you?
2.  Have a plan. 
How are you going to reach your goals?  What exactly do you need to do?
3.  Organise yourself to action.
Create a schedule.  Stick to it. What are realistic times for homework and study?  How many past papers would be sensible to complete under timed conditions?  Who can help you stick to your schedule?
4.  Enjoy yourself too.
How will you relax?  What will you do to switch off?  What good books have you read recently?  Do you need an hour off, or an evening off, or a weekend without study?  What do you enjoy most that will sustain you during the term?
5.  Stay healthy.
Make sure you’re eating healthily and sleeping well – have you removed your phone/device from your bedroom?  Are you restricting your on-screen time?  Are you getting the right level of exercise for you?
6.  Access your allies.
Who will you ask for help?  With whom will you share your fears and worries?  (Use a range of people, not just peers who may also be anxious and stressed!) Talk to your teachers.  Lots.  Ask questions, show them work, seek feedback.  Talk to your parents.  Lots.  They are worried about you (always – it’s a parent thing, believe me) – keep them informed about what you’re thinking and how you’re going.  Talk to your friends, your mentor, your Head of House, the school psychologists.  The more you express your fears and worries, the more you will feel able to deal with them.

As a final note, I think it’s important for parents to point out explicitly that they will love their offspring whatever results they get.  Some students genuinely need to hear this and also to realise that no-one will care about their ATAR score by February.
In summary, successful students reduce anxiety and stress by planning ahead, organising themselves, meeting deadlines, asking for help, having a goal in mind and enjoying a real life, too.
I hope this parentline tip sheet may also be of use.
Best of luck to all students with their imminent exams.

Dr Julie Harris
Director of Teaching and Learning

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15 May 2018 - 8:08 AM
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