Tackling test anxiety

Ella Rhodes reports from a recent roundtable meeting on children and young people’s anxiety related to tests and exams, bringing together representatives from Ofqual, the Department for Education and exam boards, teachers, psychologists and researchers.

As part of the British Psychological Society’s year-long campaign on children and young people’s mental health, this event aimed to uncover some of the factors which contribute to test anxiety and discuss potential approaches for tackling it.

Among the speakers was Helen Kitching, mental health lead and Head of Psychology at a school in Eastbourne and Chair of both the BPS Division for Academics, Researchers & Teachers in Psychology and Standing Committee on Pre-Tertiary Education. Kitching highlighted the strain placed on teachers for their students to do well in exams, and the subsequent effects this has on pupils.

Kitching said that teachers want their students to do well, but that “doing well” for some students may not be meeting a certain grade or benchmark. Simply having a student sit an exam in the first place can be a massive step forward for some individuals. She added that instilling an early fear of failure in students can set them on a negative path throughout their educational career.

Kitching said it would be ideal if there was enough funding to bring in Educational Psychologists to help those students who were most at risk of exam anxiety, and she suggested that an evidence-based toolkit for teachers and SENCOs (special educational needs coordinators) should be developed. She also suggested that exam officers should be trained to understand anxiety and become more empathetic to the needs of individual students, some of whom may feel more at ease taking an exam in a separate room or sitting near a door during an assessment. Teachers can also help by doing things such as practising mock exams away from the usual classroom so the day of the actual assessment, often held in an unfamiliar room, would be less daunting.

Subject officer for the Welsh exam board WJEC (Welsh Joint Education Committee), Dr Rachel Dodge, was a psychology teacher for 18 years before joining WJEC five years ago. She pointed to research suggesting that young people feel under greater pressure to do well in exams compared with previous generations, and a YoungMinds survey which found 80 per cent of students felt that exam pressure significantly impacted their mental health.

After asking the room how many people’s jobs required GCSEs, A-levels or degrees, Dodge said it was important to view exams as assets which may open doors for students – as they did for most people in the room.

Dodge’s PhD looked at the wellbeing of further education students. From this she said she views wellbeing as someone having a balance between their individual resource bank and their challenges in life. Dodge shared some of her ideas to help students develop this resource bank, she said it was about preparing students to go on a journey to become exam-ready.

At the start of a course teachers will often hand out a specification, or syllabus to students; this can lead to increased anxiety as students will not yet understand the material outlined in a specification. The WJEC has started to develop subject checklists with some information on what each part of the specification means. This allows students to check off material they have learned and pay attention to material they haven’t.

Tee McCaldin (University of Manchester) recently completed her doctorate which involved an in-depth exploration of the experiences of 20 GCSE students. McCaldin interviewed the students every term from the summer of year 10 up to two weeks before their first exams in year 11, to uncover some of the factors which may lead to negative or positive emotions regarding exams.

Using interpretive phenomenological analysis she found three main factors which potentially contributed to negative emotions. The first of these was receiving vague exam messages; for example when parents or teachers vaguely directed students to “do some revision” without specific guidance. The second factor was dramatising the exam or being made to feel the exam was a massive undertaking. The third was using potential exam failure as a behaviour management strategy.

McCaldin also found two factors which linked to more positive emotions. The first was receiving actionable exam messages, for example revision strategies or specific instructions. The second was familiarisation through experiences, or practising mock exam papers and questions (although some students mentioned that mocks were useful but felt the real exam would be vastly different).

While McCaldin pointed out that students did not talk about anxiety per se, they experienced negative emotions that could be measured as anxiety. Even those negative emotions were viewed as useful by some students. Their emotions changed over time and the factors which contributed to different emotions were shared across the students. She concluded that test anxiety can be described in numerous ways, it can be useful and changes over time, as a result it could be quite difficult to measure or treat.

- Find more on test anxiety in our archive

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