All it took was a teacher, his students and an idea - now there's an app to beat exam stress
Student stress during exam season can manifest itself in some bizarre and disastrous ways. Having been a teacher for 15 years and an examinations officer for five years, Andrew Buck feels as if he has seen most of them.
There was the student who turned up for an afternoon GCSE history exam only to find it had taken place that morning. And another whose bewilderment over not understanding a word of his A-level German paper was explained only when he was told that the exam he had sat was for French.
Despite the fact that exam boards release key dates months in advance, schools tend to issue them only weeks before the exams. When Buck, a graphic design teacher, asked his Year 11 GCSE students when their exams were, they all held up pieces of paper printed with exam details, duration, venue and seat number - "crumpled and too easily lost".
So he came up with the idea of creating an app, Exam Pal, which he went on to design and build with his GCSE and A-level students.
"The idea is to personalise exam schedules months in advance, provide time management tools, offer revision techniques and give advice to help students organise themselves and reduce anxiety," Buck says.
"Working with the students was a brilliant exercise and it was exciting to create something designed for, and partially by, those I was teaching. We were able to create something that includes my revision tips, collected over 15 years of teaching, and my advice to help students cope with and manage the pressure."
The rationale, Buck says, was simple: while teenagers manage to lose almost everything, few are ever parted from their mobile phones.
"Technology is a key part of their everyday lives," he says. "Also, having mentored students for many years, I was constantly being asked: `When should I start revising?', `What are the best methods?' and `How do I create a revision plan?'
"So I got the idea of wrapping my experience, and other things my students wanted and needed, into one app for a phone."
He concedes that it was easier to conceive than it was to create. The initial idea - from hand-drawn screenshots to the Apple App Store - took 12 months.
"The app design and interface was challenging, not least because we wanted the app to be easy to navigate but detailed enough to provide vital information," Buck says.
"My GCSE and A-level design students were involved in the design process at several stages, from choosing the name to helping with the screen menus and testing the app as a target audience. We made several returns to design and programming.
"Now that the idea is in store, it has become a cross-curricular project: our A-level media students are working on a three-minute advert to help promote it."
They faced other challenges along the way. With so many apps being released every day, Buck and his students were small fish in a big pond. So once the app was live, he plucked up the courage to send an email to two people at Apple, sending them pound;2, via PayPal, to download the app.
Neither responded - and he never found out what happened to his pound;2 - but he was sent an encouraging email from Mary Jane Beth at Apple Education, who loved the app and passed the details on to her iTunes team and sales staff. And last November the app was launched to millions of students on both sides of the Atlantic.
"I'm pretty proud of the app as it works on so many levels," Buck says. "It integrates official exam dates for students studying for examinations with all the major awarding bodies at all levels, provides exam date countdowns, stores previous exam results - ideal for CV writing - and syncs to Apple Calendar and Google Calendar. We have also included a section on how to deal with anxiety and coping with exam stress, which I think is often overlooked." (See panel, right.)
"As a teacher of 15 years, I'm often regarded as `old'. I suppose I'm fortunate that my subject is geared at technology. I watch The Gadget Show, Dragons' Den, so I know what is new and exciting. And I also know we need new technology to inspire our students when teaching."
Buck has had many opportunities to move into management but says he would rather stay in the classroom. "Teaching has changed so much in the past six or seven years. No longer can we teach didactically," he says. "We have to tune in to the students and engage them. I read recently that a student's attention is their age plus nine minutes. Now that's a real challenge."
Andrew Buck teaches graphic design at Hastingsbury Business and Enterprise College in Bedfordshire. For more information about Exam Pal visit www.exampal.co.uk
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