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 Pre-season has been replaced by the grand-final.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:
- Starting exam preparation too late. Generally this isn’t the result of lack of motivation but simply underestimation of the amount of work that needs to get done. This is easily prevented by getting students to prepare for exams by using an exam planner like the one below. Exam planners are fantastic, as they force students to review every single task that is required to be properly prepared, and it encourages the setting of realistic deadlines. Firstly, students determine what content from their specifications is being covered in the exam and transcribe each of these points under the column titled ‘Topic’. Secondly, they review their notes to determine whether they have summaries for all of these topics. If they don’t, they need to apportion time to making these notes. If students have all the topics covered in their notes they can move to the third step, which is setting aside time to memorise each of the topic points. Fourthly, a good exam planner will also build in practice exams into the exam preparation process, reminding students that this is the most important step of the lot. Finally, to ensure students are giving themselves realistic preparation timelines, they should set deadlines for each of the activities, working backwards or up the planner from the bottom. By considering how long each individual task takes and working backwards from the exam we have found that students are much more likely to set a realistic timeline for preparation as opposed to trying to condense preparation into a week or two.
- Over reliance on rote-learning: We have found that the vast majority of students over rely on rote-learning to memorise their notes. 65% of students use a visual rote-learning tool such as writing their notes again and again until memorised, whilst 30% of students use an auditory rote-learning technique, such as reading their notes aloud repeatedly. Students who do so tend to find two things: firstly, that rote-learned information tends to be quickly forgotten. Students try to solve this problem by leaving it as the last activity and starting too close to their exams. Secondly, rote-learning is time consuming, which tends to mean that whatever time students do have left for preparation is completely taken up by memorizing information, therefore minimizing the amount of practice exams they get to.
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.
- Not enough practice papers: We have found that the number of practice exams that a student completes is the number one predictor of a student’s exam performance. However, most students fail to complete enough practice exams during their exam preparation. This is partly the result of the factors outlined above: students not giving themselves enough time and an over-reliance on rote-learning. The third reason why students don’t complete enough practice exams is that they are hard. You need to remember a lot of information. You need to think. You get stuck. And often, you realise you don’t know as much as you thought you did. As a result, it is easy for students to simply procrastinate. Schools can help students overcome practice paper avoidance by building them into the class routine, or through events such as “Exam Days”, which we will explore more in the next newsletter.
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:
- Identify challenges in advance: Most schools now run goal-setting programs within their pastoral care programs or tutor groups, and as Angela Duckworth argues, this an important first step towards students developing grit. However, we believe schools can go beyond just identifying a compelling vision, and begin to identify the challenges that students are likely to face.
- Pre-emptively build responses: Having identified the challenges they may face students should then begin to consider in advance how they might deal with them. There are two important responses which are particularly important: preparing students to deal with the meaning of the challenge, and preparing students for what actions to take. Let’s look at what each of these mean:
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:
- “No worthwhile goal comes without a challenge”
- “This is an opportunity for improvement”
- “My response to this is what defines me.”
- “Success is not final and setbacks are not fatal”.
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.
- Build self-talk exercises into the exam process: However, schools can take it one step further still, as the above relies upon students having the presence of mind to remember to monitor their self-talk and meaning construction and to adopt proactive behaviours. In other words, the steps above rely on a significant degree of pre-developed resilience. Many, or most students for that matter, don’t come with this degree of muscle memory. Instead, schools can assist students by actually building the activities into their post-exam process. For example, when schools give mocks results or papers back to students, they can also provide with them a post-exam debrief form similar to the one that we discuss in Ace Your Exams that walks them through questions such as:
- How am I describing this result to myself? What words am I using in my self-talk, and what meaning am I creating? (Note: these types of questions require that students have explored the ideas of self-talk in some degree).
- Is this meaning or self-talk constructive or likely to help me? Is it even true? (again, familiarity with concepts such as “catastrophizing” and “jumping to conclusions” is helpful here. If you would like to build understanding or familiarity in this area, our Student Elevation seminar discusses these concepts in more depth).
- What are some more helpful meanings I could apply?
- What actions can I take to right now to get control of this situation?
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:
- Provide students with exam planners to help ensure they allocate sufficient time for preparation and they allocate their time in a way that ensures that the highest value tasks (practice papers) are completed;
- Build in practice routines to help students get over practice exam avoidance.
- Discuss the possibility of underperformance and discuss and identify possible ways to respond.
- Build in a post-exam debrief process to ensure students employ self-talk in a way that is likely to empower them, and take the necessary steps to overcome set-backs.
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