Stressed out over Exams

stressTom had bombed out in his mock.  His teacher Sarah was perplexed.  He was an enthusiastic member of the class, and she had expected at least a B.  But he had missed the right answers sometimes by a wide margin, and often he had not got the ‘easy’ marks.

“Tom, I’d really like to go through your mock with you.  I’m sure that you could have done better.”

“No point, Miss.  The exam was just too hard.  I studied and studied for it.  I don’t need a GCSE in this subject anyway.”

Sarah chose a question which she knew he could have got a good mark for.  “Well, Tom.  Let’s just go through this one question”, she coaxed.  Tom was resistant but eventually agreed to go through just one question.

“Let’s look at 3a, Tom.  Can you explain why you wrote this?”  Tom explained, and Sarah could see his convoluted reasoning, and why he had written the answer he did.  His explanation was a bit closer to the mark than what he had written but it was still a long way off.  “Well, that’s a lot closer to what the examiner was looking for, Tom.  Can you now explain why you said what you just said?”  Again Tom explained his reasoning.  Encouragingly, it was even closer to the real mark.  “That’s almost there, Tom.  Now can you explain why you said what you just said?”

Altogether Sarah worked back through several levels of Tom’s rationalisation of the answer he’d written in the exam.  She could see he was almost there.  “Now, Tom, can you explain why you said that?”

He got the right answer.

“That’s it!”, exclaimed Sarah.

“You’re not serious.”

“I am dead serious.  Look, here’s the exam board’s mark scheme.  That’s all you needed to write.”

“But it’s so easy”, replied Tom.  “Yes”, said Sarah.  “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

“Miss, do you mind if we go through another question….?”

We all get stressed over the exams but the Head types, in particular the Sixes (Questioner) and Sevens (Adventurer) can take exam stress to heights unimagined by some of the other personality types.  The driver for these two types is Fear, and they cope with it by alternately being obsessed by what could go wrong on the one hand and putting up barriers to give them peace on the other.  Potential and real problems are played through in their heads with what might seem to other types a frenetic speed.  Every possible solution is explored and exhaustively analysed.  It is exhausting, which is why they find ‘head in the sand strategies’ like Tom’s “I don’t need a GCSE in this subject anyway.”

Although exam question practice is obviously invaluable to all types, it can very easily make the difference between pass or fail for these two types.  This is because a steady drip feed of questions all the way through the course familiarises the student with the appearance and language.  Because of their generally fearful attitude (which is generally skillfully covered up with bravado) it needs to be steady over a long time.  It is NOT something that can be added as a bolt-on for the last few weeks of the course.

These types more than the other types are also preoccupied by the need to feel safe.  They do not know the examiner, which means that ‘danger’ signals are at an all-time high for them; so much so that they are more likely than not to be like a rabbit  the headlights as the exams approach.  A good way to alleviate this is to ask them to do one question and then immediately go through it with them using the exam board’s own mark scheme.  Make sure it is obvious that it is the exam board’s scheme, not something you yourself have created.  This will give them the confidence that they are getting accurate and reliable information.

These types can also be surprisingly resistant to doing this.  There are two main scripts running in their minds:

  1.  Because they are preoccupied by the multiplicity of what could go wrong, they are convinced that there is no point going through ‘this’ exam question because it will not help them with all the other thousands of possibilities.  The role of the teacher is to point out patterns in questions, introduce the idea that ‘this is the effect of temperature on enzymes question’, and that the mark scheme will always be much the same.
  2. Having to revisit what they got wrong is particularly stressful for the Sevens, whose coping strategy for their Fear is to focus on pleasant things.  If they are faced with a whole exam full of unpleasant things (ie wrong answers) it is literally overwhelming.  For this reason it is particularly valuable to regularly practice single exam questions so they do not have to cope with too many wrong answers all at once.  As they build up their confidence they can be given more at one sitting.

One of the perennial debates in the teaching profession is criticism of ‘teaching to the exam’.  There seems to be two strands in this debate.  The first is about which content is taught and how, and the second is about the merits of practicing exam questions.  I myself have been an examiner in a wide variety of settings for almost all of my teaching career.  When marking national exams it is so disheartening to find candidates answering a question similar to but not the same as the actual question.  There are also the candidates that clearly understand the concepts but cannot explain themselves clearly.  And then there are the candidates who cannot see the wood for the trees and write reams of irrelevant (but true) facts.

I feel that being able to answer questions in a formal setting (the exam) is a transferable life skill.  Whatever job or voluntary work one does, one is asked questions.  The questioner needs to be given the answer to the question they actually asked.  This response needs to be as concise and accurate as possible.






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