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What’s the best thing to say to pupils before their exams?

Every teacher wants to give their pupils the right final message before their exams – but should we give them the carrot or the stick, asks Alex Quigley

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Every teacher wants to give their pupils the right final message before their exams – but should we give them the carrot or the stick, asks Alex Quigley

Even after years of teaching, you can still be left struggling to get right that final meaningful message to your students before their exams.

For my GCSE and A Level students, getting the right grades to enter Sixth Form or College, to access an apprenticeship or university, really does matter.

But should we be telling the pupils that? Where do we draw the line between the threatening ‘stick’ of failure or the ‘carrot’ of potential success?

Negativity problems

Evidence from Professor David Putwain and colleagues reveals that we often opt for messages that refer to the ‘stick’ of avoiding failing. In surveys of 230 secondary school teachers about the types of messages they gave before GCSEs, Putwain reveals that:  “51.7% of respondents agreed, and 29.9% of respondents strongly agreed, that students should be reminded that they would fail if they did not complete coursework and revision.”

I have unconsciously done this, reminding pupils that if they don’t revise they endanger years of hard work.

The evidence reveals that messages encouraging hard work to avoid failure are also common-place. Indeed, this appeal to failure was even more pronounced with students who weren’t very engaged.

Are these the messages we should be giving, though?

Different approaches

A significant problem with the ‘stick’ method is that too many students hear an unintended message. For teens in particular, a damaging but understandable response is to give up or avoid the challenge all together.

And yet we cannot make such simple conclusions. The complex emotions that attend high stakes examinations are well-known. While test anxiety may well prove debilitating for some, for others it is a spur to perform.

So what should we do? .

First we need broad messages that normalise exam stress.

Stress solutions

We know that negative thoughts and stress can steal the mental resources from our students, using up vital working memory they need to concentrate and perform in the examination. Before our students ever get to the exam room, we can help them better understand these very natural emotions, thoughts and physical responses.

In their research on ‘test anxiety’, Raufelder and Ringeisen (2016) helpfully breakdown test anxiety into its component parts:

  • Worry: intrusive, off-task concerns about one’s own performance and the consequences of failure
  • Interference: distraction from academic tasks by intrusive, irrelevant thoughts
  • Lack of confidence: low confidence and a lack of self-esteem.

By helping our stressed students understand their feelings and actions under exam pressure, we can reframe fear and help our students understand the very natural responses to examination pressures.

Personal responses

And then we need to personalise our messages so that those who we know need the stick approach get it, and those who need a more gentle, positive message get that.

But obviously, with a large class, it may be difficult to give thirty different final words of encouragement and advice.

My solution would be to offer the general messages normalising exam stress and giving some tips on dealing with it, and then chatting to a few students individually who most need particular advice. After teaching them for so long, you will know who that is. 

If you would like to read more on the research around this, I can recommend the following:

Alex Quigley is an English teacher and the Director of Huntington Research School. He is the author of Closing the Vocabulary Gap, published by Routledge in April, 2018

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