Rebecca Simcox, Health and Social Care and Child Development Subject Advisor
As a former teacher and Head of Year 11, I’ve supported many young people with anxiety caused by exams. I also have two teenage children, one who is currently studying GCSEs and another who sat them last year. These experiences, as a professional and as a parent, have helped me to better understand how to support young people dealing with exam anxiety. In this blog I’ll share some hints and tips for students preparing to sit their exams.
Exams can be stressful for many people. When I was a teenager, I struggled to keep calm on exam day, whereas some of my friends were fine and laughing and joking. Why was this? What did they know that I didn’t? I now know they were just able to deal with stress in a different way, applying the appropriate coping mechanism, or perhaps they had learnt to mask their fears.
According to Mentally Healthy Schools, ‘exam stress describes the emotional, physiological, and behavioural responses caused by an imminent test or exam’. Some of the reasons they suggest this might cause a negative response are:
I can relate to this so much through my own experience of sitting exams (and stressful professional situations I have been in) but also from when my daughter was taking her GCSEs. She’d constantly reflect on previous exams that she felt she hadn’t done well in and would look backwards instead of forwards: a negative thought process that only leads to more anxiety. It was important she applied positive steps to overcome the negative thoughts surrounding past failures.
It’s thought that around 80% of young people will feel exam stress at times. This is because they’re put into extremely stressful situations that they’re not used to, causing a ‘fight or flight’ response. Many young people are fortunate to have a support system that has provided them with coping mechanisms, and this means they’re able to apply the ‘fight’ response. However, others might not have the support systems in place or might have coping mechanisms but struggle to apply them effectively enough, leading to a ‘flight’ response.
Those most at risk of developing exam anxiety are individuals that already have an anxiety disorder or struggle to cope with anxiety. These people can feel worse during exams, as anxiety can interfere with their ability to concentrate, recall information and perform well. Anxiety can cause physical symptoms such as sweating, shaking and a rapid heartbeat, making it difficult to focus on the task at hand. These symptoms, on top of already anxious thoughts, can lead to an overwhelming feeling of not being able to cope and the student catastrophising.
According to Ofqual, 15% of GCSE students may fall into the category of being ‘highly test anxious’. For these students, their levels of stress and anxiety are high enough that their wellbeing and exam performance can be negatively affected.
Anxiety can lead to negative thinking patterns, such as catastrophising or predicting the worst-case scenario, which can increase feelings of stress and anxiety. Anxious people may experience racing thoughts, difficulty making decisions, and feeling overwhelmed, all of which can interfere with their performance during exams. If you want to learn more, listen to this interesting podcast from Psychology in the Classroom which is about exam stress and anxiety, the body’s response to it and strategies to help.
Through my experiences as a teacher and as a parent, I’ve found that there’s no quick fix for anxiety. Everybody responds differently, so it’s important to have a variety of support mechanisms. Here are some hints and tips for students that I’ve used, and in my experience have had a positive response.
Exams are a stressful part of a life that we all go through at some point or another. The stress and anxiety that accompany them can be difficult to manage, but with the right support and coping mechanisms you may be able to combat negative aspects of exam stress and turn them into a positive. This is because exam stress can also provide us with motivation to enable us to do the best we can.
I hope you find this useful, and best of luck to all students who are taking currently preparing for exams.
If you have a moment, please take a look at our dedicated Mental Health Awareness Week webpage where we’re sharing anxiety and wellbeing lesson plans, blogs and podcasts for teachers and students.
Please let us know how you are marking Mental Health Awareness Week yourself and in your setting.
If you have any questions, you can email us at OCRHealthandSocialCare@ocr.org.uk, call us on 01223 553998 or tweet us @OCR_Health. You can also sign up to subject updates and receive information about resources and support.
Rebecca is the newest member of the Health and Social Care and Child Development subject advisor team Before joining OCR, she taught in an all-girls secondary school in Birmingham for 19 years. She taught a variety of subjects, including Health and Social Care, PSHE, PE, Sport and Dance and has a particular interest in health and wellbeing.