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At the start of this academic year, Elevate conducted surveys and interviews with close to 3000 students across the UK in order to understand how COVID-19 and school closures have impacted students’ perspectives and attitudes towards the return to school. Last Thursday, we published our findings into our report entitled A Student Perspective - click here to view the report in full.
The most striking finding in these surveys was the increased level of stress and anxiety around mocks. When asked what their number one fear or concern was for the coming school year, 27% of students responded with “mocks”. This was the second most prevalent concern, and almost on a par with final exams (29% of students), which we haven’t seen before.
Further, the majority of students expressed the fact that they did not feel prepared for their mocks (51%), whilst only 14% felt prepared and confident.
It would appear that the cause of this fear is the possibility that final GCSE and A-Level exams are cancelled and that students’ final grades will be based upon their performance in mocks, as occurred with last years’ cohort. Mocks have therefore moved from being seen as a low stakes way for students to get used to exams, identify weaknesses and fine-tune how one prepares for an exam, to all of a sudden being seen as the endgame. Mocks have become make -or-break. Pre-season has been replaced by the grand-final.
The increased emphasis students are placing on mocks is reflected in their increased stress levels, with 81% of students stating that their stress levels have increased due to the thought that mock performance may form a part of, or all of, their final grades.
Similarly, this fear is equally reflected in the fact that 35% of students who stated that their number one fear should schools close again would be the likely increased importance of mocks. This was the most common top fear amongst surveyed students.
Why is this such a threat?
Some people may be reading this thinking “About time!”. After all, most schools have spent the last few years trying to increase the levels of seriousness with which their students take mock exams, best reflected in the almost universal transition to use of the term “pre-public exams” as a replacement to the less official and serious “mocks”. Isn’t this then what everyone has wanted?
We believe the answer is no. It would seem that students have already moved beyond taking the mocks seriously, and have started to perceive them as the be-all and end-all of their year, where anything other than high performance constitutes long-term and irreconcilable failure. For many students, the belief is that there will be no coming back from one misstep.
Schools will want to be considering how they can help students develop stress management capabilities (something that we will deal with in Issue 4 of this newsletter).
However, we believe there is an even greater risk to students than high levels of stress, and that is students who underperform quickly give up and enter a long-term cycle of disengagement. It’s a little bit like an egg and spoon race. If you dropped and broke the egg, there isn’t a lot of point continuing, and there isn’t much point picking up the egg and putting it back together. We believe that those students who drop marks early will rationalize their performance in much the same way with the possible consequence that they simply give up.
How to help students walk the tightrope
Given this tightrope that students are going to be walking, we believe that there are 2 things that schools can be doing right now to reduce the risks described above, and we refer to these as the 2Ps of Mocks: Prevention and Preparation
The first step to minimizing disengagement is prevention. That is, ensuring that students have the necessary exam preparation skills to ensure that they don’t drop the egg or underperform in the first place.
As we discuss with students in the Ace Your Exams seminar, underperformance in exams is generally caused by students making 3 mistakes:
This problem can be solved by ensuring that students have a range of higher-level memory skills to draw upon. See the Memory and Mnemonics programme for further details.
The second P in our strategy for minimizing student disengagement is Preparing students for underperformance. This is somewhat counter-intuitive as one may feel that discussing the possibility of underperformance only serves to increase the degree to which students focus on negative factors, with the risk that we only increase students’ stress and anxiety. Better to focus on positive thinking instead, some may posit.
We don’t believe that this is the case. There is a difference between positive thinking and realistic thinking. Whilst we are all for optimism, pretending that the journey to a goal will have no challenges is extremely misleading. In fact, the sudden and unanticipated shock that occurs when a challenge is met is likely to trigger the ‘flight’ response in students, especially those who already have lower degrees of self-efficacy.
Instead, we believe schools can help their students build resilience in order to persevere through their challenges and set-backs through 3 practices:
Meaning: Without getting too philosophical, no event has any inherent meaning beyond what we give it. The greatest risk for students dealing with unanticipated challenges is that the meaning they give the event is disempowering. “I did poorly because I am stupid”, or, “it’s all over and there’s no point continuing” being prime examples. However, by identifying and discussing challenges in advance, schools and teachers have the ability to discuss that there are alternative meanings that could also be drawn, such as:
By identifying and discussing how students can choose to view their setbacks, we provide students with more conscious choice and agency in their response. To add weight to these meanings, it is worthwhile examining case studies and examples of people who have overcome what would appear to be insurmountable setbacks and still succeeded. As Alfred Bandura, the man who coined the term self-efficacy argues, simply studying those who have succeeded or overcome setbacks builds self-efficacy. Example builds upon example, reinforcing a student’s beliefs and making them more robust.
Process: Preparing students for how to apply a more empowering belief to a setback is a good starting point, but even better is then providing them with specific steps to take. In our Ace Your Exams seminar, we discuss a 4 step process that students can use after exams to overcome set-backs:
Step 1: Choose an empowering belief.
Step 2: Meet with my teacher to understand where I have gone wrong and identify my mistakes.
Step 3: Identify steps I can take with my teacher to correct the mistakes, eg, rewriting the essay using the feedback I have been given.
Step 4: Identify friends that I can work with over the coming weeks to help act as informal tutors or supports (We will discuss peer to peer collaboration in more depth next week).
The beauty of having a defined series of response steps is that students don’t sit around dwelling on the negatives, but instead can swing into action, which is likely to increase their sense of agency and locus of control.
These forms could then be handed in to the classroom teacher or form tutor so that relevant party can work proactively with the student to effect the changes.
Bringing it all together
Based on the above, how schools can bring this all together for their mocks to not only help prevent students from underperforming, but also help build the necessary resilience to cope and persevere should setbacks occur:
Elevate focuses on a number of these skills in our Ace Your Exams and Student Elevation seminars. To find out how these seminars could help your students navigate their mocks, contact a Program Coordinator here or give us a call on 01865 989 495.
>>Next week: how to maintain your students’ motivation