Well-being - Play the computer to beat exam blues

Studies show program dispels fears and could boost grades

Adi Bloom

Are your students nervous? Tense? Consumed by debilitating anxiety whenever they so much as stroll past the open door of an exam hall?

Fear no more: a new computer program will drive away all their worries. Nightmares about wrongly memorised notes will be a thing of the past. And, new research shows, eliminating this exam-based anxiety is likely to ensure a significant improvement in their subsequent grades - enough to take students from a grade B at GCSE to an A*.

The Strategies to Tackle Exam Pressure and Stress (Steps) initiative provides students with detailed self-help resources, including quizzes, games, study skills sessions and coaching in anxiety-management techniques, such as deep breathing and positive visualisation.

Researchers from Edge Hill University in Lancashire and the University of South Australia, as well as academics from UK exam board AQA, piloted the Steps scheme with 267 students aged 14-16 from the North West of England. The students were asked to fill in an anxiety survey before and after completing the program and their scores were compared with a control group of 1,519 teenagers.

The results, which were presented this week at the British Educational Research Association conference, held at the University of Sussex, revealed that teenagers who suffered from severe test anxiety were able to significantly overcome their fears. On average, their levels of anxiety were reduced by a moderate to large amount, according to the academics.

"We are cautiously optimistic that our intervention may indeed offer these students steps to identifying and managing test anxiety," the researchers said.

Such stress-management schemes could become increasingly valuable for schools. England's education secretary Michael Gove has announced that future GCSE candidates are to be judged entirely on exam performance. The new guidelines, which come into effect in 2015, will eliminate the coursework elements of many qualifications, and students' ability will be gauged solely through an exam taken at the end of two years of study.

Alleviating students' anxiety could be influential on more than just their mental well-being, the researchers said.

Another study presented at the conference, conducted by Dave Putwain of Edge Hill University, revealed that teenagers with high levels of test-related anxiety are likely to perform significantly worse in exams than their more relaxed peers.

Dr Putwain analysed the anxiety levels of 325 secondary students in the North West of England, all of whom were about to sit their GCSE exams. The teenagers were asked questions designed to measure their degree of exam stress. Teenagers who claimed to worry a lot about exams went on to perform worse in their GCSEs than those who did not. This held true even once students' prior ability was taken into account.

Meanwhile, students who said that they never worried about failing were likely to achieve a GCSE result one and a half grades higher than those who often worried - equivalent to the difference between an A* and a B.

"There is no doubt that test anxiety ... has a detrimental effect on GCSE performance," Dr Putwain said. "Increased worry ... predicted lower achievement."

But Mike Griffiths, president of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that it is difficult to differentiate between cause and effect. "There are going to be youngsters who have quite considerable anxiety because they know they haven't worked enough," he said.

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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