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Exam anxiety and what it’s here to teach us all.

Updated: Jun 6, 2021

OXSWOT I 5 March 2021

Anxiety can arise from a perceived loss of control and an increased awareness of what is uncertain in our lives. For A level and GCSE students, the run up to summer exams is always a period that can throw up these sorts of feelings. However, this year we can add a pandemic and the ensuing weeks of remote study into the mix for good measure. Students are facing an exam period like no other and it’s no surprise that many are feeling the pressure.

Exam anxiety can be crippling and it’s important to understand some of the triggers behind it. Each pupil is unique but here are some key personality types that can result in a feeling of unbearable pressure in the face of A levels and GCSES:

1. The Perfectionist

Have you a high achieving perfectionist in your living room? If so, then it’s likely that their fear of failure (the unavoidable opposite of success) is bubbling away for them right now

2. The Procrastinator

This is the pupil for whom things have become unmanageable. They got behind on one task and now things have snowballed and knowing where to begin seems an impossible job

3. The People Pleaser

How do you keep all the plates spinning when you have the expectations of parents, teachers, peer group and universities to meet?

4. The Proud Pupil

Asking for help feels like an admission of weakness and no one wants to look academically vulnerable at a time where your teachers are instrumental in deciding your grade

(Psst! It’s totally possible to identify with more than one of these personas)

Exam anxiety can manifest in various ways for a pupil. There might be physiological signs, such as trouble sleeping, headaches, nausea and a feeling of irritability. Or it might inhibit their processing skills thanks to dips in concentration or an inability to stay organised. Anxiety can also contribute to feelings of low self esteem and a tendency for pupils to catastrophise their outcomes.

As much as some people criticise exams and the undue pressure they perceive it places on pupils, we’re none of us being honest if we can claim that our adult and professional lives are without their pressure points or tests. So helping the teenager in your life develop healthy coping strategies is a lifelong skill that will serve them long after the exam hall; we do them a disservice if we try to keep them insulated from external and internal pressures otherwise.

Some of the best solutions are the simplest, although establishing and maintaining some of these is not always the easiest when dealing with a teenager so drawing in a member of the school’s pastoral team or an external tutor can help take the intensity out the parent-young adult dynamic:

1. A good routine around sleep is key

We know teenagers are wired to wake later so encourage them to plan their schedule with this in mind.

2. Exercise, stay hydrated and eat well

These are all basics that can fall to the way side during times of revision and exam pressure.

3. When revising, using a timetable is key, but just as much emphasis should be given to when it’s OK to stop as when they need to start!

Many pupils impact their sleep due to the false belief that they must cram into the early hours of the morning. This has a consequent effect on their ability to process the next day. Procrastination is also aided by a lack of boundaries as we become overwhelmed by the feeling of no end point for the mammoth tasks in front of us.

4. Unpacking topics to isolate the trigger areas that cause anxiety is key, too.

If a pupil can tackle that first it has a consequently positive effect on other revision and exam anxiety. Choosing one to one support, such as that offered by the lovely people at OXSWOT can help nip these areas in the bud quickly and relieve stress.

5. Focus on positive motivators (intrinsic and extrinsic).

Encouraging a pupil to reflect on what they love about the subject can help with this rather than questioning or emphasising the bigger picture or risks around not making a grade and perhaps a sixth form or university place. Finding a like minded, supportive peer who can hold them positively accountable can also work, provided it’s not an environment that will promote competitive over (or under!) working.

So, yes, as much as there is wisdom in knowing that your exam results don’t define you for life (*insert yearly twitter blast from a celebrity on results day here*), how you deal with pressure and anxiety just might…

Our writer, Sabrina, is a Deputy Head of Sixth Form at a leading day school and the Founder of teacher led tutoring company, OXSWOT. Discover more on instagram @oxswot or head over to oxswot.org and join the mailing list.

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