Helping all children become happy learners
Exams and tests
Examinations and tests are an important part of school and college life. They are used to make a wide range of judgements about the quality of learning achieved by individual students. Formative assessments support teachers in understanding the needs of their students. Summative assessments provide judgements about what has been learned and can be recalled or utilised independently by the student. Some examinations can have life-long implications for the opportunities that are open to the student. However all assessments influence and mould the student's attitudes to education and their self-esteem. This starts from the earliest assessments in school and nursery and continues beyond the final examinations that shape each student's life.
Informal formative assessments that are a routine part of weekly school life will often yield information with minimal anxiety for students. The more formal summative assessments, particularly those at the end of the academic year, or educational phase, are much more problematic. Intense social pressure is applied to students to do well. Also it is not just the individual students that are being judged by these assessments; their teachers, schools and colleges etc. are themselves measured and held accountable through them. This added stress on staff is inevitably passed on to students.
A significant number of students struggle under assessment pressure and experience a range of social-emotional difficulties such as anxiety, low self-esteem and demotivation towards learning. It follows, therefore, that actions that can support the emotional well-being and self-esteem of students can improve results for both the individual and their school or college. Explicitly teaching students strategies to manage the anxiety and stress of examinations and other formal testing is therefore as important as the subject matter being assessed. Ideally, this should be part of the school or college's assessment-friendly ethos.
Analysing the current situation
What pressures are on your students to do well in exams and other tests? Is this pressure positive, healthy and sustainable? How do you know this? What input on this do you receive from the students themselves?
How do you recognise students who underperform because of exam stress and anxieties rather than educational understanding and ability? What arrangements in examinations is there for these students? Could things be organised differently?
What arrangements are in place to minimise stress for all students in exams? Consider the timing of exams; the resources needed by students; location of and organisation of examination rooms as well as the comfort and physical needs of students during tests.
What differentiation in examinations is there for students? Do you make use of permitted changes to accommodate the needs of specific students? For example, movement breaks, alternate rooming and extra time etc.
Post Exam Support
What support is available for students immediately following examinations or other formal testing? Is there any form of debriefing? Is this for all students or for those that are recognised as vulnerable?
There are many possible strategies for supporting students with the stress of examinations. These can include whole cohort approaches as well as more targetted support for individuals or groups:
Support strategies for all students
Study skill workshops
Many students need support structuring their revision and this can lead to anxiety. Poor organisation skills around revision can lead to study avoidance behaviours as the student procrastinates and self-justifies lots of other things that 'need' doing first.
Consideration should be given to the location of exams. Students may benefit from being in familiar spaces such as their own classrooms when taking exams. When other spaces such as halls are used, provide opportunities for relaxing or fun activities in the weeks that lead up to exams. This can help create a more relaxed associating with the room.
Timing of exams
Where possible avoid exams starting too close to the start of the school or college day. Some students can experience stressful journeys or get overly anxious about being late. Starting the day with more familiar daily routine behaviours can be useful. When exams are unavoidably early consider special access arrangements for students so that they can arrive early, meet with friends, get themselves organised and have time for toilets etc.
Ensure that rooms that exams are taking place in are as comfortable as possible for students. Monitor room temperatures to ensure it is neither too hot or cold. This can vary within a large space particularly if some students have direct sunlight on them. Also consider the intrusion of sounds and smells, particularly when exams are held in school halls next to kitchens.
Where students are responsible for providing their own pens, pencils and other resources it is useful to have a supply of spares. Importantly it is essential to issue them as necessary without making the student feel embarrassed or guilty for needing them.
Support strategies for groups
Students with difficulties such as dyslexia may be entitled to extra time in examinations. Consider how these students can maximise the benefits of their extra time. For example, many dyslexic students struggle with time concepts, planning and organisation. Providing explicit support in working out how much time to spend on each question or task is essential in helping these students demonstrate their full potential. It can also reduce the anxiety and stress that is caused through the fear of running out of time.
Students with attention difficulties such as ADHD or sensory needs can struggle to maintain concentration for the length of some examinations. Testing these students in a separate room to their peers may provide the opportunity to pause examination time. This can then provide opportunity for these students to stand, stretch, drink water etc so that they can better refocus on the test when examination time is restarted.
Support strategies for individuals
Desks facing walls
A few students such as those with ASD or sensory needs may prefer to work with their backs towards others. This reduces visual distraction and therefore the sensory load for these students. This approach may also be helpful for anxious students; who can become stressed by looking around at the other students and believe that they all appear to be managing the exam better than themselves.
The sound of other students scribbling on their examination papers can be distracting for some sensory students with hypersensitivity to sounds. Letting them wear ear defenders can help. Some students may also benefit from listening to white noise or calming music. Meet with these students in advance to select and monitor music choices and ensure compliance with any security protocols for the examinations.
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