5 ways to help your Y11s prepare for their GCSEs

After more than two years of disruption caused by the pandemic, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has made it clear that GCSE and A-Level exams will go ahead as planned this year. 

But it’s not quite a complete return to normal. In a speech at the Sixth Form Colleges Association conference in January, Ofqual’s chief regulator, Dr Jo Saxton, reiterated that there are no plans to “switch off” the plan B contingency measures that schools are being asked to carry out in case exams are once again cancelled this year due to Covid.

This leaves students and teachers needing to prepare for a ‘normal’ exam scenario, while also juggling regular mock-style exams and teacher-assessed grades (TAGs). In this context, it’s no surprise that high levels of uncertainty are causing greater exam anxiety for pupils. 

In a survey of 4,000 teachers we conducted recently via Teacher Tapp, 49% responded that Y11s were coping worse with exams pressures when compared to previous years – up from 29% in January 2020. 

Read: 2022 Exam Anxiety and Mental Health report

So, how can teachers relieve some of this pressure, and help their Y11s prepare for their GCSEs? We consulted two experts in the field of test anxiety – David Putwain, Professor of education at Liverpool John Moores University, and Tamsin McCaldin, Doctor in educational psychology, University of Manchester – to get their advice.

Wellbeing and mental health

1. Start the conversation

Professor Putwain recommends, as a first step, talking to your students about stress and anxiety, what they are, how to recognise them, what are their triggers, and specifically that exam pressures are nothing to be scared of. 

“Everyone can learn effective ways of coping with pressure and managing emotions like anxiety. This could be done in a whole-year assembly, wellbeing days (if your school has them), or through PSHE lessons (or their equivalent). 

Diaphragmatic breathing is an effective approach to reducing immediate feelings of panic and can be used, for instance, at the beginning of an exam. It does, however, require practice and could be easily incorporated into wellbeing days or PSHE lessons.

2. Avoid dramatising exams

At the University of Manchester, Dr McCaldin conducted a study which followed a group of students through their GCSEs and interviewed them about their experiences. In her study, students described feeling as if their GCSEs were, “a massive deal” and, “the biggest thing we’ll ever have to do”, with these feelings often stemming from comments from parents, teachers and peers – not to mention general media coverage of exams.

While it might not be possible to be completely casual(!) about impending exams, it’s good to remember that dramatising or over-emphasising their importance can increase students’ anxiety levels and make them feel less able to cope. On the other hand, careful, moderate language that keeps exams in proportion, can really help.

3. Be careful with the ‘F’ word – (‘Failure’)

Both our experts agree that focusing too much on the concept of failure in the lead-up to exams can be counter-productive, particularly when it comes to behaviour management. 

Professor Putwain advises: “Heavy handed messages about the importance of working hard to avoid failure can motivate some students, but are triggers for anxiety in others. The effectiveness of such messages depends on them reaching the right students and so may not be best used with whole classes or year groups.”

Putting this into a classroom context, Dr McCaldin’s study mentions a student called Owen, who described a situation in his English class: “when everyone’s mucking about there’s a point when [the teacher] will be like, ‘Okay, you have to focus now, you have to stop doing whatever and concentrate because otherwise you’re not going to learn what you need and we’ll fail these exams’.”

McCaldin’s study found that, even if these messages were directed at other members of the class, students still described them as increasing their negative emotions. So the takeaway here is to communicate sensitively – and use the ‘failure’ word sparingly.

4. Help students structure revision

Another point highlighted by both our experts is the importance of providing specific and detailed actions which students can take during their revision. This is particularly important for students who have low confidence in their abilities, whether subject-specific or general.

One student in Dr McCaldin’s study explained how step-by-step, actionable messages made a difference: “It’s more helpful if some teachers weren’t just saying ‘go and revise’. What am I going to revise from? Just read the whole book? Is that even revising? How do you know it goes in my head like that? It helps when someone tells you to do this bit and this bit and then that bit.”

Professor Putwain elaborates: “If your school doesn’t teach students about specific ways to revise, and how to plan revision, and importantly how to judge whether revision is effective, these would be excellent ways to help anxious students build confidence. Showing students how to revise in a cycle of self-regulating learning (set goals, revise, test, review goals) can provide the structure some students need to underpin their revision.”

5. Think about additional support

Lastly, for students who are highly test anxious, Professor Putwain recommends considering whether to provide additional support or intervention, drawing on your educational psychology or CAMHS service if needed. 

For pupils who struggle with confidence in a particular subject, one-to-one tuition can be a really effective way to provide targeted, low-pressure support. Speaking about the impact of MyTutor’s GCSE tuition programme at Hackney’s Urswick School, Assistant Headteacher Naomi Dews commented:

“The one-to-one aspect of the tutoring is a big benefit. There’s much less of an embarrassment factor telling someone one-to-one that you haven’t understood something, rather than trying to say it in front of a class of 30. There’s also no pressure on the tutor – in the way that there might be for a classroom teacher – to move on from a topic because the rest of the class has got it.

For some of our students, having someone to spend as much time as they need on a topic, filling in those gaps and then building their confidence, was really helpful. And once they believed they could do it, that was half the battle won

If you found these tips helpful, subscribe to stay in touch – and we’ll keep you updated whenever we have useful content, or information about our tuition services, to share.

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