Dr Nihara Krause, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Founder & CEO stem4
Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, ‘If you are going through hell, keep going’ – a depiction of the tenacity and determination he so clearly demonstrated for success. Given nearly two years of disruption through the pandemic, how can educators support their students to ‘keep going’ and for those students who face public exams, be able to maintain their application to work in the face of uncertainty and disruption?
Even prior to the pandemic, schools, colleges and universities were witness to the negative anticipation of exams and their effect on students. Exam anxiety or performance anxiety is not new, and educators will encounter students who present with school or exam non-attendance, panic symptoms, increased cheating behaviour, being so overwhelmed that they are unable to complete work or present with excess overwork and fatigue as some of the symptoms of such anxiety.
COVID-19 has brought about its own challenges. Given its highly unpredictable nature and the disruption it has caused, many students will have faced long periods of isolation, intermittent access to online study and breakdown of routine and as a result, application to work. From a learning perspective, it is estimated that students will present with less learning in general but also that young people studying for exams and those from disadvantaged families are the most likely to experience severe disruptions to their learning and their motivation (Andrew et al, 2020). This very large-scale study of around 60,000 students aged 6-18 years in the UK predicts that young people taking GSCE’s will be the most at risk of disruption, with nearly 1 in 4 students in GCSE years saying they couldn’t get help from family members to help with homework, and 40% saying they lacked routine to study from home.
In addition to loss of academic learning, there is also an increase in anxiety-related disorders and mood disorders in young people as a result of the pandemic (NHS Digital 2021) and within these groups, there will be different reactions depending on their initial anxiety and mood levels, access to treatment, as well as their experience of the pandemic and re-integration back to school.
Educators are well positioned to identify and respond to the needs of their students, especially those who may struggle the most. It is also possible to create a school or college culture in which not only the impact of the pandemic on student health can be shared, but also the perceived and actual pressures of exams are recognised and addressed through providing student support. It is important, however, to recognise that there is a ‘new normal’ which will have to be acknowledged and catered for. This may mean that assessment must continue to be flexible, representative of student ability and inclusive.
As a clinical psychologist, I often encounter the impact of exams of young people already struggling with poor mental health. Below are some suggestions on how to prepare students develop a range of ‘mind tools’ and target driven behaviours to do well in exams, keeping pandemic impact as well as mental ill health in mind.
One of the most important contributors to success of any type is self-regulation. Self-regulation is the ability to manage emotions and behaviour in accordance with what the situation demands, in this case about developing a set of skills to enable staying on track and being able to control and motivate yourself towards performing a goal despite the unpredictability they face and their own feelings. Self-regulation consists of a specific mind-set and behaviours. Unfortunately, given the collapse of boundaries and lack of structure caused by the pandemic and ongoing anxiety it has generated, being self-regulated has not been easy for young people or for adults. In addition, clinical depression, and the impact it has on motivation, outlook and energy also makes self-regulation much harder to implement.
Learning to be self-regulated requires daily practice. Interestingly around 40% of human behaviour is habit driven so, in order to make a change, students need encouragement to get started with some study goals and revision structure. Setting small, manageable goals, challenging negativity, creating a support network, actively withstanding distractions and encouraging adequate sleep are all steps to manage depression but also help in learning to establish self-regulation and can be agreed goals in tandem with parents and carers. To help manage test anxiety, teach specific revision and exam techniques. This should increase application, enhancing competence through practice and promote a sense of agency. A self-regulated set of behaviours for students include, making specific and measurable goals to give ‘active direction’ and keeping up performance. Active direction is about tracking how you are doing in the face of emotional turbulence and continued evaluation of your effectiveness. If students are encouraged to start with something hard, persist whilst noticing the emotions this generates and keep monitoring how they improve, with practice, this helps them to see themselves as instigators of self-change.
A ‘self-regulated mind-set’ requires developing accountability, and parents should not fall into the trap of being ‘outsourced’ to take on this responsibility. This means helping students exert control over what they can control rather than fearing what they can’t.
To do this, students should be encouraged to focus on ‘the now’ instead of worrying about negative future possibilities. This is particularly helpful in managing further unpredictable pandemic uncertainties. Learning to self-reflect on the outcome of their performance helps the student to recognise if they have achieved their learning goal or not and measure self-satisfaction.
Helping students challenge perfectionism can also benefit performance anxiety. Most people want to do well in exams, but perfectionists fear failure because they evaluate their worth based on their performance. For a perfectionist, failing an exam can represent being a failure as a person. A ‘perfectionist mind-set ’is negative and rigid and constitutes a risk factor to poor mental health. Perfectionists see what they haven’t done, are self-critical and never content. Lost learning over the pandemic may make it much harder for perfectionists since they are less likely to show themselves up as not knowing. Clinical Perfectionism is an anxiety disorder which will benefit from psychological intervention.
Perfectionism also leads to a range of unhelpful behaviours which include ‘over studying’ to achieve a ‘perfect goal’ which can never be reached. This leads to over exhausted, over emotional responses, self-doubt and to procrastination because achieving the perfect goal is so daunting. Rather than contributing to success, perfectionism interferes with success. Help students aim for an excellence-based mindset. A student aiming for excellence separates their work from being what validates them as a person. Help them to focus on the positives and on what they can do. Encourage them to aim for a high, but flexible standard – aiming for a range in high marks (75plus) rather than a perfect answer (100%). ‘Growth mind-sets’ (Dweck, 2006) thrive on challenge and see failure as a springboard for growth.
Learning how to make the best use of stress can be very helpful in exams. Help students to understand that ‘Eustress’ or good stress enables us to achieve our peak performance and that when we are under stress, our brain gets sharper, and concentration is boosted. Stress helps us to push ourselves forward and by doing so enhances self-belief and effectiveness. To deal with stress, encourage students to pace themselves for continuous periods of work and to then have short breaks. Provide support for managing the physical symptoms of exam stress, pre, during and post exams. This can include physical exercise, learning controlled breathing, mindfulness exercises, progressive muscle relaxation techniques.
Given anxiety disorders are high, post pandemic, help students understand that anxiety is caused and maintained by fear-based perceptions and subsequent behaviours. Help change feeling daunted to being challenged. Encourage students to substitute the word ‘overwhelmed’ to ‘excited’ and to note how a ‘conquering mind-set’ helps them feel in charge. This type of mind-set will include helping students identify undermining negative thoughts and to retrain themselves to switch from negative to positive thoughts. However, real fears and experiences need to be acknowledged and validated (for example, a negative experience that has impacted the student) so as not to minimise a negative experience whilst also helping the student to look at home they may think differently about it. Anxious behaviours need to be challenged by ‘feeling the fear but doing it anyway.’ This means facing fears rather than avoiding them, one step at a time.
According to Aristotle, ‘good habits formed at youth make all the difference in later life.’ I echo this more specifically to say, ‘student early study habits will contribute enormously to their later exam success.’
*Dr Krause’s 16 week ‘Exam Training Plan’ encapsulates some of these ideas in a fun format (www.niharakrause.co.uk, resources)
The Clear Fear app helps challenge negative thoughts and also provides breathing and progressive muscle relaxing strategies.
The Move Mood app helps to set targets and work towards them challenging the negative behaviours associated with low motivation and low mood.
Andrew, A et al (2020): https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/35632/1/BN288-Learning-during-the-lockdown-1.pdf
Dweck, C.S ‘Mind-set”: The new psychology of success, Random House, 2006