You’re listening to the Parents of Hardworking Teen Podcast, episode 7 - and today we’re talking about exam stress - why actually not all stress is bad, and how to keep it to an appropriate level so your teen can perform at their optimum in their exams.
Okay VIP’s! I hope you are doing great. I’m feeling amazing - ready to take on Term 3 here. I met up with two friends yesterday and you know how you have some friends who you just feel so energised after you’ve caught up with, well that is me right now after a double dose of that - they were separate friends that I met up with separately - and so I am so excited to be with you right now, in your earbuds, or on your speakers. And to be honest I really couldn’t get much further through a podcast for parents of hardworking teens, than episode 7, without talking about exam stress, could I?
And in my experience, this is one of those things that really HASN’T changed so much over the years. There is definitely a lot more talk and awareness these days around stress, mental health and anxiety for teenagers.
But, in my experience - from back when I was a student and now, as a teacher and study coach, the things that are stressing students out now, the causes of the stress when it comes to exams, I think are pretty much the same as they were when I was a student.
And just to play the sympathy card here for a moment, my birthday is in June, which is always when external exams are held in England. So, in both my GCSE’s and in my A-Levels I had a big exam on my actual birthday. Somehow I managed to escape it at uni. I think they all got done a little bit earlier.
But I vividly remember feeling that stress. Not wanting to eat breakfast, feeling nervous about what on earth they would actually ask about in the questions, had I revised the right stuff, would I remember it all, and then worrying about those stories you’d hear of like accidentally turning over two pages at once and missing out a whole section of the exam paper, or not answering the right section, or the more crazy things like I’d write my name in the wrong place on the front and so that would mean my paper would be scrapped and I’d get zero.
I think lots of us have had those sorts of things run through our minds.
And so I think we all know and accept that this is all totally normal.
Now, I am not a counsellor or psychologist. I don’t have any specialist training in student wellbeing.
Everything I share is based on my experience, observations, my own research, and ongoing training and professional development as a high school teacher and working with exam boards from the UK to Australia, for over 16 years.
And from that, I think the first thing it’s important to remember is that feeling stressed for exams is normal, it’s okay to feel stressed.
I like to reassure students that it means they are a totally normal human being - because I think otherwise that can add to the stress: it’s like on top of the stress we’re feeling, when we worry about the fact that we’re stressed and think it’s a problem, we add another layer of stress. So, first I just want to remove that layer they might be adding for themselves.
And I also want to let them know, that at the right levels, stress can also actually be beneficial.
Because, we generally have negative connotations around the word stress. We immediately think it’s bad. That we must never feel stressed.
But, although it doesn’t necessarily feel good, it can actually serve us. Stress has a purpose and, at the right time and right levels, it CAN actually be helpful.
Because stress increases our energy and our focus - which when you think about it are exactly the things we want in an exam or even during revision.
So, this episode is really about keeping stress at manageable and - dare I say it - beneficial levels.
And as you probably know by now, if you’ve been following along with me for a little while, I like to address study issues at the source, solving for the causes of problems rather than trying to deal with the symptoms.
I’m not talking about how to help them relax, I’m not talking about deep breathing, or visualisation techniques or any of the stuff that can help with the symptoms of stress. Not that they aren’t useful, but what I really want to do is help students not get to the point of really needing those. My preferred option, is to help your teen become skilled and confident in their study and exams, so that they are: calm and in control, even if a little nervous, and feel confident, even if they don’t know what questions will be on the paper.
So, here are what I see as the main causes of exam stress:
> There’s the fear of the unknown- What will they ask about? What topics and questions will actually be on the exam paper?
> Then there is the uncertainty: how do I answer the question? What do the markers want me actually write?
> Then, there’s the time pressure - in the exam hall - and also during their exam prep and revision.
> And of course, there’s the pressure they feel in terms of the consequences of their exam results.
What your will personally make that result mean for themselves,
or what they perceive others will think of them, whether it’s their peers, or their teachers, or their family, and what the consequences are for their next steps. Does their subject selection, classes, or their university entry depend upon it?
And yes, there are many routes into different courses and careers these days - and taking alternative routes can definitely be beneficial to students, but let’s still acknowledge that certain results can either speed that up, or open up more options.
And you know, that if you listened to episode 3, that as well as there being the option of us helping students recognise that their results do not define them, and having all available pathways to whatever they want for their future, we also have the option of them rise to meet their goals, their expectations for themself. And that’s what I’m here to help you with.
So talking of episode 3, if you haven’t already listened to that, definitely go back and do that, because the insights and strategies I share in there, like the 3 exam performance killers, and what exams are really testing will be a HUGE help alongside this one.
So, given that your hardworking teen DOES feel some degree of pressure, and there may well be things that hinge on their results, we want to reduce those other causes of stress as much as possible. And that is totally doable.
I think probably the most significant cause of exam stress is that first one I mentioned: The fear of the unknown. Not knowing exactly which topics they’ll ask about. What will be on the exam paper?
And the reason I think this is the biggest one, is because when I did some research about study stress, I found that psychologists state the key cause of stress -in life in general- is not feeling in control.
And students can control their exam prep, but they feel totally out of control in terms of now knowing what questions or topics will come up, how the questions will be written, etc.
So, one way to increase that feeling of control is to have a strategic and organised revision plan.
Now, I have students use the Reverse-Engineered revision planning system that I developed, because it is based around topics and content and outcomes, not time.
So, it’s not I’m going to spend 2 hours on Tuesday revising History.
It’s knowing which specific content will be covered - content that has been given a certain level of priority - and knowing which active revision technique they’ll use to revise it.
They have to use active revision techniques - not passive. They have to transform and process the information in some way. I will be sharing more about that - active revision and the trap of the familiarity delusion, I’ll be sharing that at the 5 day free parent event I’m hosting next week called ‘Parents of Teens Aiming High in Exams’. i’ll tell you more about it at the end of this episode so stick around for that if you’re interested in anything to do with exams for your teen.
But first, let’s get to that second reason your teen likely gets stressed for exams: the uncertainty around what the markers want AND THEN… how do they give it to them?
So often, students’ level of confidence in HOW to answer questions is not at the same level of as their subject knowledge.
So the two main ways I train students in this are: identifying the command of the question, which may be simply identifying the command word - the verb, like describe or analyse or compare.
Or being able to figure out the level of command when there isn’t a specific verb - like questions that start with HOW.
PLUS, they need to become savvy with mark schemes. They need to understand how they work, they need to know how marks are allocated, they need to know in descriptors: what really is the difference between clear and detailed? What is the difference between appropriate and discerning?
And then, there’s the time pressure - now, we already talked a bit about the time allocation and scheduling of their revision, so let’s get into the time in the exam hall.
Again, there are multiple elements to this, but here are my top two:
Firstly, there’s the challenge of getting all the questions answered in the time they have.
And if your teen runs out of time in exams, then - they are either spending time feeling stuck and not writing, in which case, everything I just talked about in terms of understanding and dissecting the question is going to be SUPER important.
OR, more likely - they are writing too much in their answers. This is especially common for hardworking teens because they want to try to get down as much information on that exam paper as they can which is what I call the spaghetti approach. Where they throw lots of spaghetti at the wall - get as much information related to the topic being asked about onto the page - in the hope that some of it sticks - gets them marks. And some WILL get marks, but likely there’s a fair amount that isn’t required.
Definitely go check out podcast episode 3 for more on this - and again, notice how being skilled in understanding the question and becoming a master of mark schemes, is essential to stopping that spaghetti approach and instead having the confidence to know what information to include, in what way - and IMPORTANTLY, to leave out what isn’t required.
And secondly, there is the time saved by your teen writing a clear and detailed PLAN for any essay or extended response. The importance of that plan is that it will make writing the answer a lot faster and smoother and of course the quality will be higher as well.
But in this context, let’s stick to the faster part. As a guide, the time spent on a specific and structured plan will gain your teen back double the time in their writing. So, if they spend 6 minutes writing a plan, that will save them 12 minutes in writing the response - 12 minutes of potentially second-guessing themselves, waffling, going off on a tangent, trying to remember something they thought of earlier to write, but now it’s slipped their mind where they actually need to be writing it.
But… committing to this is challenging! Because in exam conditions, they don’t feel like there is TIME to make a plan. Which is why, one of the exercises we did in essays bootcamp for my Next Level Coaching students recently was making quick fire plans for unseen essay exam questions for all different topics and subjects. Yep, they were even writing out plans for subjects they’re not studying, because remember, from episode 1 - there is the subject knowledge, and then there are the UNIVERSAL skills of application. Skills that can be used - and are required - across any subject, any exam board, and in any year group from Y9 - 12 or 13.
And imagine that confidence, when your teen can read and dissect an essay or extended response question for ANY subject or topic, can systematically figure out the focus of it and how a response would need to be structured. How would that increase that feeling of control and therefore reduce their stress?
Because it really is about increasing their sense of control over their study.
Feeling in control, that we’ve got this, does not mean that there is no unknown. It means that we feel capable of tackling whatever we get given.
So, like I mentioned earlier, if you are interested in seeing all of this in action, on getting more of these strategies, real life examples and much more, then you absolutely need to be in my free 5 day parent Facebook group - Parents of teens aiming high in exams.
We officially start on Monday 18th July but I’ll be opening up the group a few days earlier so that you can get in, download the action guide that I’ve made for it and also get in with the chance of winning one of the prizes I’ve got in store for you there too.
I’ll be sharing the invitation on the Rock Solid Study facebook page and sending it to everyone on my email list as well - first invite is going out Friday 15th.
And once you’re in, you’re welcome to invite your family and friends as well.
So, I’ll hopefully see you in there at the weekend and in the mean time have a brilliant rest of your week and I’ll see you back here very soon.