When exam nerves turn to anger

30th May 2008 at 01:00
A certain amount of anticipation should lift results, but pupils need a sense of proportion

A certain amount of anticipation should lift results, but pupils need a sense of proportion

There are the clingy children who regress to thumb-sucking and rocking back and forth in misery. There are the raging children who lash out at everyone around them. Then there are the workaholics who never feel sufficiently prepared, and the procrastinators who spend so much time preparing, they forget to do any actual revision.

Many pupils respond to stress at exam time by conforming to one or more of these stereotypes, according to Vivian Hill, an educational psychologist at the Institute of Education in London. Ms Hill has spent several years studying the effects of exam stress on pupils of all ages, visiting 180 schools across Britain and speaking to children and teachers. She found that pupils respond in different ways.

"Unless you're relatively stressed, you don't perform at your best," said Ms Hill. "But if you're too stressed, you won't do as well as you could. With even the most gentle teacher, some children don't sleep for weeks. But there are others you can scream at for months, and they still won't be stressed."

There are many patterns that stressed pupils tend to follow. Many develop psychosomatic illnesses in response to exam stress, complaining of head or stomach aches. Others have trouble sleeping, or express a reluctance to come to school.

These pupils regularly become tearful and withdrawn. "Showing signs of regression is a classic," said Ms Hill. The children resort to thumb- sucking, rocking, being clingy with their parents, not wanting to go to school or take part in normal play activities.

"These children are full of self-doubt. They persuade themselves that they're not going to cope, then they get hyper-anxious and over-exaggerate the negatives."

Other pupils respond to stress by becoming angry very quickly, both at home and at school. "These children feel threatened by the idea of being assessed," said Ms Hill. "They resent being asked to do things, and protect their self-esteem by being cross.

"If teachers shout at these children, you end up in a vortex of anger. You have to help them calm down. They're often not aware of why they're angry, so you can help them articulate it."

Some pupils deny all responsibility for how they will do in their exams, claiming that it is down to exam fate: what will be, will be. "You need to show them that they can influence the outcome," said Ms Hill. "It makes a difference if they study."

Others are convinced that they are set up for failure and will never achieve the results they need. And a third group set themselves unrealistic goals, such as a string of As. For these, the response is to throw themselves into their work, revising all hours but never feeling fully prepared. These are the same pupils who will look over their shoulders in the exam hall, wondering why their classmates are moving onto a second answer booklet, while they have barely started on their first.

Others immerse themselves in the preparation process, drawing up a series of increasingly complex revision timetables, but never getting down to any actual revision.

"It's a survival strategy," said Ms Hill. "The whole thing seems so daunting that they don't think they'll ever be good enough or prepared enough. So it's easier to plan the structure than to actually deal with that."

She believes it is vital that teachers recognise the different forms that stress can take and respond with support and encouragement.

"It's about getting the balance between a little bit of stress and making pupils feel that their lives depend on the results," she said.

"It's a system that has built into it the opportunity to try things again. So it's not the end of the world if you fail. Exams matter, but your life doesn't depend on it."



- Be aware of your own role in generating stress. If you feel your professional reputation depends on achieving good results, you will pass this pressure on to pupils.

- But remember, a little stress can improve performance.

- Consider introducing a breakfast club to ensure pupils have a filling, relaxed meal before the exam.

- Watch out for atypical behaviour and encourage pupils to talk about their fears. They may not realise stress is causing this behaviour.

- Do not directly challenge pupils who show their stress through anger, as this will only make them more defensive.

- Maintain boundaries, but try to be more flexible than usual.

- Remember that a lot of stress is down to self-esteem: many pupils feel they will never be good enough, no matter how hard they work. Reinforce their self-esteem with positive feedback wherever possible.

- Begin revision sessions by asking questions pupils will be able to answer, to show them they know more than they think.

- Try to avoid the ripple effect: even relatively confident pupils can be made to feel stressed and nervous after spending time with pupil prophets of doom.


- They are not victims of chance: they can exercise a degree of control over the whole process, by choosing to revise consistently and well.

- They should not cram right up to the start of the exam. They need to recognise when they have done as much as they can.

- They need down time in order to relax and process information properly.

- They are better prepared than they think. They already have practice sitting mock exams, so they are not dealing with the unknown.

- This is only a couple of weeks out of their lives. Within a month, they will be free again to do whatever they want.

- Whatever their results, they are still the same people.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today