Supporting Teenagers through the Exam Season

At this time of year in the northern hemisphere, many teenagers are becoming aware that the exam season is moving inexorably closer. For some this will mean an assessment of progress made during the current school year; for others it will mean a series of exams that could play a large role in determining their future: which university they will be able to attend, if any, and ultimately the career upon which they might embark.

The exam system has its detractors, who argue that it is possible to learn how to be good at exams, without necessarily being good at anything else; or who see exams as a poor basis for taking decisions that may have such a long-term effect on a person’s future. However, universities and employers seem generally to be agreed that, whilst the exam system may not be perfect, it remains the best tool we currently have as a means of assessing academic potential. Many use other additional factors or measures alongside exam performance, but even so, exam results still carry enormous weight.

Of course, there are some students who look forward to exams, knowing they are likely to perform better than they do ordinarily. For others, however, exams begin to loom on the horizon like some kind of mythical beast that needs to be fought and conquered. It is not just the importance of the outcome that contributes to the stress surrounding the exam period. Fear of failure, exaggerated parental expectations, realization that time during a course of study has not been used wisely, knowing that their hopes for the future might be dashed by the outcome – all these factors, and more, can combine to make the exam season a time of extraordinary stress and anxiety. So what can we do, as parents and teachers, to support teenagers through this stressful time of year?

Advice for parents

Practical help. I have lost count of the number of parents who have said to me over the years something along the lines of, “I decided the most valuable thing I could do was feed them!” Practical measures that enable the student to focus on revision and preparation for exams represent one way that parents can show support. The nature of the support will depend on the teenager and the family. Other approaches I have encountered include: suspending certain household chores until the exams are over, funding one night out a week during the exam season to ensure the student takes some time off from revision, and making adjustments to the pattern of life in the household to try to minimize disruption for the student.

Encouragement. Parents will want to encourage their teenagers to keep going in the face of pressure and when they feel like giving up. But there are other forms of encouragement that may be required too. Students work best when their revision programme is balanced. Encourage your teenager to draft a revision plan. It does not need to account for every minute over a three-month period, but it does need to include all the subjects! Also, encourage them to include time off, exercise and sleep so that their overall approach is balanced, as that will enable them to work much more effectively. Ultimately, encourage them to accept that your love for them is not determined by the level of their exam achievements, and if the results turn out to be disappointing, reinforce that message when they find out. In the meantime, encourage them to work hard through the time that remains to them before the exams and to do their best.

Place responsibility with the student. Ultimate responsibility for your teenager’s exam results rests with them. Teachers, tutors, peers and parents can all offer support, expertise and help as appropriate, but that will achieve little if the student does not put in the work. None of the above, nor exam boards, are there to act as scapegoats if the results do not turn out to your teenager’s liking. It is important that your teenager understands that this is what reality looks like when it comes to exams.

If your teenager is among the small minority of students who, despite being made aware of their responsibility, persist in doing next to no work, there is little a parent can do other than reinforce the message about responsibility. Difficult though it may be for parents to watch, some teenagers will only learn the hard way. If the worst happens and the results are disappointing, I can only say that I have worked with a number of parents over the years whose teenagers have not been admitted into their chosen university at the first attempt, or who have needed to take a year out and re-sit a number of exams. Often the teenager has succeeded the second time around, or they have decided on a different direction for their future, and both the teenager and the parents have found eventually that the initial poor results were not the end of the world, even if it felt like it at the time. For a significant proportion of those who found themselves in that position, the experience turned out eventually to be a valuable learning experience.

Advice for Teachers and Schools

Advice about revision. I would encourage schools to offer some form of programme to help prepare students for revision and exams. Such a programme should explore a variety of approaches to revision that will appeal to a range of learning styles. Also, they should help students develop the skills they need to make revision plans and to know how to use those plans helpfully. It is also helpful for teenagers to understand the value of sleep, of a healthy work-life balance, and of good examination technique, so all these might helpfully be included in a programme of preparation.

Active revision. Over the years I have had numerous conversations with teenagers about their preparation for exams. Many of them have told me that their teachers have stressed the need for active revision, but when I have followed up with a question about what that means, a surprisingly large proportion of them seemed not to know. Good advice is soon wasted if it contains educational jargon that the students do not understand! The term active revision is trying to get the message across that there is far more to a good revision programme than the student just reading through their notes, which a surprisingly large number seem to think is sufficient. That may be part of it, but there should also be working through examples from scratch, checking notes against textbooks, asking teachers or peers for clarification where needed, trying out past exam questions. I have seen a number of instances where students have formed their own revision groups for certain subjects, where they teach, help and support each other through the exam season.

Encouragement. There may have been times throughout a course of study when a teacher felt the need, either with groups of students or individuals, to highlight their misuse of time and bemoan lost learning opportunities. However, as the exam period moves closer, such an approach can have a marked negative effect and might even lead some students to feel that there is no point even trying to prepare as it is already too late. In the exam season, encouragement needs to be the order of the day, and I have seen a number of instances over the years where students have achieved beyond all expectation due to the optimistic encouragement of their teachers.

Consider gender differences. It is generally accepted that girls mature earlier than boys, which can give them an edge in exam situations where students sitting an examination are pretty much the same age. Self-doubt can affect many teenagers, often girls especially; whereas lack of organization can be an affliction that is more common in boys due to their comparative immaturity. Whilst students do not always follow their gender stereotypes, there is nevertheless sufficient truth within a stereotype to give teachers an understanding of things for which they need to be looking. Whatever the cause, such characteristics can be a disadvantage during the pressured exam season, but they are also issues that can be addressed and managed with help.

Place responsibility with the student. Teachers, as well as parents, need to remember that ultimately students are responsible for their own exam results. Teachers offer instruction, insight, clarification, additional help and encouragement, but students are responsible for their own performance. In very unusual circumstances, such as teaching the wrong syllabus, teachers and schools might be held responsible for the outcome, but such situations are very unusual. Generally, the majority of students will perform in line with teacher expectations, whilst a few will over- or under-perform. That is the nature of the exam system and within that system students carry responsibility for their level of performance.

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