What GCSE students are worrying about (and how to help)

Research into students’ experiences of exam cancellations last year can help teachers to provide support this year
18th January 2021, 12:00pm
Tee McCaldin


What GCSE students are worrying about (and how to help)

Gsces & A Levels 2021: What The Research Says About Supporting Students Who Have Exams Cancelled

So exams are cancelled once again and the grading approach is still uncertain. For staff, already under huge pressure, it can be difficult to know how to best support students through these tough times.

Last summer, we conducted research asking GCSE students how they felt about the exam cancellations they'd faced - and the findings could be helpful when thinking about how to support this year's cohort in facing a similar situation.

GSCEs and A levels: How last year's exam cancellations affected students

Here's what they told us:

Concerns around control

Teachers regularly urge students to take control of their own learning, to work hard and revise well for exams that they will have to take alone, to achieve grades that will be solely theirs. 

For many students, the cancellation of exams represented a loss of control over something they felt they were meant to be in control of. This sense of a lack of control was unpleasant, and was often linked to students describing feelings of worry, upset or anger. 

"Obviously everyone hates exams, but at least you get to have your say and it is in your control." 

"After years of preparing, I won't be able to ever prove how good I was in a subject."

"I've had the carpet whipped out from underneath me and it feels very out of my control."

A small minority of students saw this more positively, explaining that they felt confident that their previous work was good, and that this would be used to inform their final grades.

Concerns around communication

Students described feeling left out of communication and decision-making. They understood that changes and uncertainty were unavoidable in the circumstances, but they wanted more information from schools than they were being given.

Often students felt, however incorrectly, that schools and teachers knew more than they were telling them, or that they were keeping information from them.

"Nobody is telling us what's going on."

"We don't know what's happening. Our lives are involved here and they can't tell us."

"Been abandoned by the school… missed out on vital points of communication. They don't care about reassuring and guiding us through this very confusing time."

Many directed these comments at schools, although others also talked about limited communication from the government and exam boards, and highlighted confusing media coverage:

"There has been widespread confusion from the beginning. The media are reporting [inconsistent things]. Meanwhile, the people who matter, like Boris Johnson's education minister, [have] said very little. We are all so confused."

Concerns around the future

Many students were concerned about how exam changes would affect their futures. This manifested as worry over whether their grades would be viewed or valued differently:

"I'm worried whether my future employers will find the certificate inadequate despite it being fully qualified, or if this will interfere with my university applications in the future."

Others discussed the impact on their next steps, in terms of missed teaching or exam experience leaving them less prepared for future study. 

Concerns around grading accuracy

Students described concerns around the accuracy of grading. They felt that the grades might not be representative of their potential under normal circumstances.

"The grades might not reflect my true abilities."

"[I was] set to improve a lot more in the last months before the exams."

When grades were based on teacher assessment, many students felt concerned that their teachers wouldn't have enough knowledge of them as individuals to know how to grade their work accurately:

"Most teachers don't know who I am."

However, some students felt confident that teachers would "know me better than an exam and know better as to what I could achieve".

Our recommendations for supporting students this year

Talk to them about how they are feeling

Hearing how students feel can allow you to target interactions, communication and support. It may be useful to use a survey to gather views. 

Getting students to speak to each other about their feelings and hear others' perceptions can also help them to form a balanced view of the situation.

Keep students in the loop

Schools should seek to communicate clearly and transparently with students. Even when the situation is changing and not all the answers are clear, it can be useful to say this explicitly. 

We understand that this is not always in the control of individual teachers. However, we would appeal to senior leadership teams to be open with communication.

Try to make updates regular (at the end of week, for example) even if there is nothing very specific to report on. This can make a big difference to students' feelings of connectedness and support.

Build a sense of control

Students may feel less in control of their grades this year but there are things they are still in control of. Encourage them to focus on what they can control, such as how they react to the situation, how they spend their time and so on.

Remind students that exam grades are not everything and encourage them to develop a plan A and a plan B for the future to promote a feeling of control.

Where possible, be transparent about the process of grading and standardisation and the steps taken to ensure that grades are a fair reflection of students' attainment.

Provide reassurance

Reassure students that whatever their next steps are, people will understand that their experience has been different this year, and that they may need extra support to prepare for study, having missed learning.

Encourage students who are stressed or worried to adopt helpful coping strategies, which could include:

  • Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, visualisation (there are lots of helpful YouTube videos available online).
  • Talking about their feelings.
  • Expressing emotions via music, writing, exercise and so on.

Although not discussed above, it is important to note that how students felt was not always negative, with some students feeling happy and relieved at the cancellation of exams.

Dr Tee McCaldin is a lecturer in education at the University of Manchester

This article is from a team at the University of Manchester including: Tee McCaldin, Kevin Woods, Kerry Brown, Rob Buck, Nicola Fairhall, Emma Forshaw and David Soares. For more information about the study, visit: www.mygcses.co.uk

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