By Tim Roome
This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week focused upon how stress impacts upon our well being. At the same time, the exam season started in the UK, so there was an interest in exam stress. The message from the media and from mental health professionals has been that there is an increase in stress for young people caused by the exam system, though not everyone agrees. Whatever is the truth about levels of stress, young people taking high stakes exams in school will be more at risk. For some young people stress might be helpful to provide focus and motivation. For others, high levels of stress might interfere with their ability to do well in the exam.
In this context, during my Year 1 placement I was asked by staff in a secondary school to find out about stress in their Year 10 pupils who were about to start their exams. The project had two phases. In phase one I used a questionnaire and focus group to ask the pupils about their experience of stress. In phase two I ran a workshop to provide support to the pupils who had been identified as being at risk of high levels of stress during the research.
How pupils experience exam stress
The questionnaire was given to 131 Year 10 pupils. They were asked to give words that described their feelings about their exams. Of the 131, 85 (63%) pupils said they were ‘nervous’, and 70 (53%) said they felt ‘worried’ by their exams. 17 (12%) pupils responded that they felt ‘terrified’ at the prospect of their exams. Only 27 (21%) pupils reported that they were experiencing no stress regarding their exams.
The pupils said that they had problems with sleep, concentration and motivation. 0ver half the pupils said that they had little or no support. When they had support it came from family and friends, rather than from teachers. These results show that in this school most of the year 10 pupils were experiencing some exam stress. And a minority were experiencing high levels of stress.
I then ran a focus group with 12 of the pupils. Thy told me that they felt pressure from school and home to do well. They that their teachers were also stressed and that this led to them putting pressure on the pupils. They reported pressure from parents who had ‘expectations that were too high’. Financial pressure following private tutoring, oldest child expectations and ‘moving to England to better our chances’ were also mentioned.
Support for pupils
The pupils suggested that there was not enough emotional support offered at school. They said that all of the help was focused on study skills to achieve high grades. In the focus group the pupils said that they didn’t think the teachers’ role was to ‘help their feelings’ and that they wouldn’t speak to many (if any) of their teachers if they needed help.
The research suggested that in this secondary school some pupils were experiencing high levels of stress about their upcoming exams. In the second phase of the project these pupils were offered support in a workshop. The pupils were given information about sleep, stress, mindfulness, motivation and self-esteem. The pupils were told about things they could do help to manage their exam stress.
The results of the research were reported back to key members of staff in the school to help them to understand what they were doing well and what they might need to change. The staff responded well and made plans to change some of their procedures so they could provide more support for their pupils at exam time.
Tim is a Year 3 trainee on the educational psychology training course at the University of Birmingham.
You can find resources for parents to help children with exam stress from the NHS https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/coping-with-exam-stress/ , for older students at Student Minds http://www.studentminds.org.uk/examstress.html and for teachers at Public Health England https://campaignresources.phe.gov.uk/schools/resources/exam-stress-lesson-plan-pack
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