The Knowledge

Research: What support might students need with ‘normal’ exams?

Students will need extra support to prepare for exams that may feel normal to us but are completely new to many of them, write Tee McCaldin and Hannah Wilkinson

Students will need extra support to prepare for exams that may feel normal to us but are completely new to many of them, write Tee McCaldin and Hannah Wilkinson

28 Mar 2022, 5:00

Schools are increasingly aware of how students’ experiences around exams – particularly stress – can affect both their wellbeing and their outcomes. As we return towards what we think of as ‘normal’ exams this year though, it’s worth noting that these may in fact feel very different for students and they may need additional or different support from usual.

In the summer of 2020, we spoke to GCSE students about their experiences of exam cancellations. They told us how they believed this might affect their future exam experiences, and those of others around them.

Students described feeling as though the cancellations had resulted in them missing important stepping-stones in their school life that should have prepared them for future study. They described feeling that they had missed teaching, learning and knowledge but also, and more importantly, revision and exam practice. These experiences were viewed as natural things that should have happened, and students believed that their year group may be uniquely disadvantaged by not having had them.

Students also discussed a lack of motivation due to missing revision and exam preparation, with some feeling that this would affect their motivation around study in the future. Those who believed they had worked hard and prepared well in their GCSE years felt this particularly keenly.

This year, students may feel less prepared but also less motivated than in previous years. In order to build confidence and reduce feelings of disadvantage, students are likely to need clear explanations of exam processes, and detailed and specific advice around skills. It can help to guide students through factors such as: how marks will be awarded, topics that are likely to come up in the exam, effective revision techniques, how to spend time in the exam, and tips for picking up marks.

The cancellation of exams represented a loss of control over their futures

In addition to students receiving this information, it is also important for them to feel that these techniques will be effective and to feel confident in performing them. Providing explanations as to why these techniques are effective and adopting encouraging and motivating language when discussing them can be helpful in achieving these aims.

Students felt the cancellation of exams represented a loss of control over their grades and their futures, not just because their grades were being decided by other means but because decisions seemed confusing and the details of processes uncertain. This was exacerbated by feelings that there was a lack of clear communication between decision makers and students, and some felt that this would leave them feeling distrustful of similar systems in future.

Many will be aware that this is a transition year when it comes to exam grading and that provisions are being made to try to accommodate for lost preparation time. But the unfamiliarity of these systems is actually likely to add to their sense of loss of control. Paradoxically perhaps, the mitigations designed to help them could simultaneously increase their feelings of worry.  

The advanced communication around what 2022 exam provisions will look like – including advanced information on the exam and additional materials such as formulae and equations – should help to increase feelings of control over the situation. However, communications are still directed at schools and teachers rather than at students themselves. To ensure they don’t feel left out of the chain of information, schools and teachers should provide detailed information about planned provisions. Teachers can also support this by offering a clear and reassuring voice of confidence around the processes.

In addition, students will likely benefit from an open acknowledgement that things are different for them compared to other year groups, alongside reminders that this experience is being shared by all students taking exams this year, that they are not alone, and that teachers, schools and exam boards are doing what they can to make it all feel as normal as it can.

This research was conducted by the myGCSEs research team at the University of Manchester, including Tee McCaldin, Kevin Woods, Kerry Brown, Rob Buck, Nicola Fairhall, Emma Forshaw and David Soares

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