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Exam stress in students - how to plan for success
Revision expert and founder of the Tassomai learning program, Murray Morrison has helped thousands of students to prepare for exams. Here he explains how managing stress is the key to success. If you can spot the signs early, then there’s time to make the difference…
The underlying theme of nearly every revision session I taught was to emphasise the importance of knowledge. But it wasn’t knowledge of all the facts on the syllabus – it was knowledge of self.
Where are your gaps? Where are your strongest topics? Which ones are the priority to fix? When – and how – are we going to tackle them? Seeing stress in students was something I was very used to: many of my students were referred to me by psychotherapists specialising in teen anxiety. My job as I saw it was not to spoon-feed them with lessons and tutoring, rather it was to show them how to self-regulate, put together a plan that was manageable, attainable and sustainable and help them to execute it by themselves.
Among the myriad troubles a teenager faces, exams or the preparation for them is a big one. At the crux of it is the issue of not knowing what they don’t know: this builds a nebulous dread, recognising that there’s work to do but not knowing where to start. Conversely, students also not knowing what they do know is a problem: they often know more than they think, and are missing out on giving themselves a little confidence-building credit.
This is the foundation of the software I built, Tassomai – by using adaptive quizzing with immediate feedback, students can build a practice routine that helps them quickly find gaps and fill them – and do so without relying too much on outside help. But that’s just one part of what’s needed for a truly healthy revision program.
If schools are trying to support parents in helping their children’s revision, I’d advise they give the following advice: recognise the signs, open up communications, go through the textbooks and syllabuses together to map out where the problems are, and help them to put together a plan for success.
First, can parents recognise the signs of revision stress in amongst the normal behaviours of a teenager?
Students who, when exams or revision are mentioned, bury their heads in the sand are displaying classic avoidance behaviour. They might change the subject completely, or they might find a subtle excuse to get out of the room and stop the conversation. Do not waste time in confronting this behaviour. Revision-avoiders need to make a plan and they will need a bit of help to do it. Avoiding the problem means that revision work will pile up and stress will increase. Confronting it, though mildly traumatic at first, will defuse the situation and they can start to feel like their work will genuinely bear fruit.
With similar motivations to the avoidance tactics, but dealing with the stress a little more aggressively, acting spikily, shouting or slamming doors and storming out.
The approach must be similar - conversation, a bit of analysis together and putting a plan of work together - but proceed with caution to avoid damaging the chances of progress. Have faith however, that by doing the initial work, the underlying issues that caused the aggressive behaviour will dissolve a little, and life for all will be much more agreeable.
Seeing this behaviour you might initially count yourself lucky or feel there’s no problem. Students who keep themselves busy, who are motivated and diligent and who stay up late revising with extra practice papers may seem to be on top of it all.
However, this behaviour may indicate a lack of confidence and a tendency to worry. Take time to make sure that they’re addressing everything they need to focus on. Overworkers have been known to keep revising their best subjects and hide the problem areas out of mind. Make sure also that they’re keeping things in perspective - they might benefit from limited or regulated revision times and a bit more time for R&R.
A problem among higher-achievers - some students seem to have it all under control, but whenever you look at them, they’re lying around not doing much. It can be hard, if you’ve never struggled in school to know how to ask for help - or from whom. Talk to them to find out whether they are truly feeling positive. Acknowledge that they’ve been doing very well so far, but ask if there aren’t just one or two things they’d like to get help with.
If nothing else, a couple of practice papers to get them fit and ready for the big day might be positive. It could justify the confidence or reveal one or two topics for final polish.
Finally, that student who spends much of their revision time on seemingly highly-productive but not-terribly-useful work. In exam stress terms, this is the student who is always very busy with superficial tasks like colouring in notes or organising files and revision plans.
This feels like a combination of overworking and avoidance - but students with this profile are in a sense well ahead of the curve, because their notes will be brilliantly organised and ready. Nevertheless, they would benefit enormously from some outside help: work constructively to set a goal for each revision session, and check in regularly to track what has been achieved and how valuable the session was, and find a way to chart that information so that they can see how far they’ve come.
All students, whether they conform to these examples or not, are likely to improve their psychological preparedness for exams with a few straightforward actions, and these are done most healthily if parents or friends are able to support. The single best thing to be done in dealing with exam stress is to work out quickly where the strengths and the weaknesses lie in each subject, make a plan around that analysis and constantly check and measure as improvements come in.
Embarking on this work may seem daunting, but remember that this is helping self-knowledge first and foremost. When a student knows that they know things, stress gives way to confidence.
About Murray Morrison
Murray is one of the UK’s leading education and revision experts. With over 20 years of experience within the education, learning and revision sector he has personally taught hundreds if not thousands of students on a one-to-one basis to help them reach their full potential, pass their exams and grasp the process of efficient learning.
During Murray’s career he has taught a diverse range of people – including students with learning difficulties, behavioural issues or psychological issues that prevented them from achieving their best. Murray’s approach has always yielded exceptional results and earned him the reputation as one of the top tutors in the UK and a renowned expert within this field.
Since 2012, Murray has focused fully on developing Tassomai into a cutting-edge software business. Having created the platform, its algorithms and written the first 60,000 questions as a means to support his own students, the program later became available as a subscription service. In 2013, the platform was seeing over 1000 questions answered daily. Now it is over 1 million each day.
This year Tassomai will celebrate over 1 billion questions being completed by UK students. To date, over 500 schools have subscribed to use Tassomai as a homework tool, where it is estimated that over 250,000 students have benefitted from the software.