Exam Stress - A topic that’s mentioned quite often these days, from social media to the guest lecturing sessions at our local schools by acclaimed field specialists. 

Whenever I have heard the term being used, I have never thought it would apply to me. Sure, I may be lagging on my academic schedules. I may have the not so pleasant prospect of the impending GCSEs looming over me, counting down the hours and days till 11th of May, 2020 - making me compromise on activities that I like to do. But I couldn’t deem myself stressed. I remember reading an article once, about a girl who committed suicide because she didn’t get the grades she had aimed for in her GCSEs. I couldn’t grade my lack of time to revise for a test or my worry over a piece of unfinished homework, that detrimental to my mental health. It just didn’t seem like a term that would fit me. But as time draws near, and now that the new year has dawned on us, I’m not feeling so sure about it, any more.

 In my case, I had ignored the clouds of exam stress over my head for a long time, and carried my worries with me for months, only addressing it when it began to impact the efficiency of my studies, and my ability to concentrate on the work at hand. I think all of us have or will at some point lock horns with this necessary evil; of course, we will all endure varying degrees of acquaintanceship; but meet him, we will.

A few months ago, The National Education Union, published an article on the reformed GCSEs and their impact on students. Here’s a Fun Fact: Polls indicate 73% of the respondents believe that student mental health has worsened since the introduction of reformed GCSEs. 

When you type ‘How do schools - ’ on google, among the top 6 results you find - ‘‘How are schools tackling mental health?’

This is the context for my research, and here are some of the main pointers that could help us deal with exam stress.

Splitting our work into smaller, more manageable parts; setting realistic goals; and scheduling our time for all your activities are helpful. Even if you can’t rigorously follow your routine, it’s a good way to make sure you are clear on your long term goals and for the next few hours of your working. I always find it reassuring to have an idea of what I need to do; it gives me the assurance that everything is under control, and the prospect of the exams can be well managed. 

 Prioritise your time - spend it on what you really need to do, and then give it all your focus.

Keep a constant routine - It's a good practice to have a constant diet, exercise, and sleep routine. It ensures the best performance of your body, and makes sure our brain is not overwhelmed by our work. Making sure you're getting 8/9 hours of sleep, having enough slow-release carbs, not taking too much caffeine, getting enough water, at least 30 minutes of exercise daily : are all part of a healthy routine.

Don’t do it alone

In 2004, a research paper published in Linguistics and Education saw that revising with peers is an effective study technique as it allows individuals to better absorb their own notes. Never hesitate to reach out for academic or emotional support.

Don’t be too hard on yourself

It’s important to sometimes remind yourself - ‘Worrying doesn’t really solve the problem’. When we’re in the muddled middle of revision, we often forget to appreciate how far we’ve come and how much we’ve done. I remember when I was revising for my recent mock exams, I wouldn’t allow myself much breaks between sessions. I felt, breaks were a waste of time. But then there would be chunks of time where I realise I haven’t really gotten anything done, because I just could not get myself to concentrate. Nothing like a pat on the back to lift our spirits. 


 During revisions, I find myself spending time debating over whether I should use a while to come up with a different approach, or is it best to just keep going. There is awareness about the lack of time, there is self doubt about the effectiveness of the revision strategies that i’m using - it definitely needs sorting out. Although, it doesn’t solve the problem, it is good to know what other students are going through. These are a few snippets from my interviews : “I would spend so much time the day before the exam just sitting and worrying”; “I even felt it during the exam - the feeling that I cannot remember anything and then the worry that followed because of that. ” ; “There’s also to take into consideration people who have disorders and other issues. They will need special care and strategies to deal with stress.” ; "I do in-depth learning of a lot of topics, but only a fraction of them come up in the exams. How is that fair?"

Bethany Greenwood of The Kingston Academy, had an interesting perspective on the topic of exams. She quoted that: “A lot of us also underperform in exams to some extent. There’s always a lot of stress and pressure that’s on you in those two hours. It’s really unfair that our whole academic potential is assessed by one test at the end of the year. For example, in the United States, students are assessed by their school work throughout their high school career - through coursework, classworks, and frequent tests. I feel like this gives a better understanding of a pupil's knowledge and also, in a way, assesses a wider range of skills that are essential to be a good student.”

To get a different perspective on the issue, I approached a teacher currently teaching GCSE students: Mr. Niel Collins, from The Kingston Academy. This devoted academician opened up a whole new perspective.

“Whenever the topic comes around, it’s always been in a negative light, but I feel like in a measured amount, stress is a good thing. It is definitely an enemy when stress is constantly prolonged. But exams are not like that - these only last for short bits of time, and are good practice for getting used to the real world. In reality, there will definitely be situations you find more stressful than sitting an exam, and it’s important to realise that exam situations cannot be treated as an inconvenience we can run from.”

“There are things, however, that you can do to prepare yourself, and steps the school should take to ensure that. For example, our recent school mock exams for our Year 11s had been held in an official exam hall setting, identical to the one they will be facing for their GCSEs this summer. If students had all their term-wise exams, mock exams, and even annual assessments in that setting; they would be so undeterred by the anxieties of sitting in a quiet room full of students, with all the formality and strict monitoring, when their real ones come around. This practice also gives them the opportunity to recognise and rectify many other flaws and personal hurdles.“

As a teacher does the exams worry you? :  “There’s always a worry for those students who may have external circumstances that may affect their performance, which is a terrible thing. There are also some students who just aren’t mature enough to understand the importance of revision when they are in Year 10, or just do not take their exams seriously. In general, for all students: those who put in more work will get higher grades, and those who do not work as hard won’t. That’s just something you come to accept as a teacher after a while.” 

How has the focus of student’s  mental health in schools improved over the years? :  “Student stress and mental health has definitely gained more attention over the years, on media; and schools have begun to recognize it more. They have been able to provide more support for students, and that is really important. On a side note - as a personal opinion, I feel like their focus is slightly misplaced. 

With the exception of students with more major medical issues, I think schools should facilitate in improving student’s tolerance to stressful situations, instead of removing the problem for them by providing external classrooms, etc. This does not provide students an opportunity to overcome and master the issue.  As I have mentioned before, you will face more stressful situations in your future, and learning to cope with exam stress is an essential stepping stone.”

These, my readers, are compelling points to ponder on : should we adopt a continuous grading system like the GPA?; should we embrace the one ‘final exam system’ as we have in our country? I hope the policy makers are paying attention and doing their due diligence, while we students get ready to face the GCSE 2020.