April 28, 2021
By Dr Kathy Weston
Chez Weston, summer assessments and an important entrance exam are looming. Back, hundreds of years ago, when I was a student on my gap year in Belgium, exactly one month before exams started, posters were suddenly plastered all over the town with the diktat: “Blocus, silence SVP!”; translated as ‘the fun has been suspended until further notice’. There was an unspoken, yet communal, agreement that all socialising should temporarily cease, and quiet observed, until exams ended.
I am kissing goodbye to my Saturday afternoons for a few weeks. Instead, parental engagement in revision will take place. The good news though, as I always remind parents, is that you don’t need to be a subject expert to be your child’s revision buddy. Our primary, initial role, is helping them to organise themselves and their thoughts.
I am a big believer in helping them get the architecture around revision right. I always start with, “Right, do we know the dates of your exams?”. This normally takes at least three hours to solve because they seldom do and generally need to ask their friends or email a form tutor, but it’s worth taking the time to locate the dates and circle them in green (not alarmist red) on the family calendar. “How many weeks are there between now and the tests? What commitments do you have at school or at home that we also need to add to the diary?” Some families (very numerate and organised ones) use spreadsheets for this kind of visual, but I like an old-fashioned, oversized sticky note that can be placed directly on the kitchen wall.
The purpose of easing children into ‘revision mode’ by way of chats about dates and timetabling is to set the tone; we are in it together. We have a plan and most importantly, there is no reason, at all, to feel stressed.
I have always enjoyed sitting exams and find the common narrative about them relentlessly negative. In general terms, and in normal times, they provide an equitable way of assessing pupil progress (big shout here to the GCSE/A Level cohorts of 2020-2021, who have had to tolerate considerable and lengthy uncertainty regarding how they will be assessed).
I have a 14 year old at home. The fact is, he has another ten years of exams to sit and pass before he is likely to enter the workplace. I don’t want him to perceive them as enormously stressful or traumatic. I want him to see them as features of life to be dealt with as proactively and positively as possible. I need him to always understand that pace is absolutely everything.
There is a rhythm to revision that begins long before exam week; it starts with listening in class, doing homework, keeping good quality notes and being prepared to do ‘little and often’. The intense period of revision that I described in the first paragraph, really should be reasonably straightforward, if the rhythm of working hard has been consistently upheld at school.
In my experience, children feel pressured when they feel out of control, when they don’t know where to start, when they haven’t got a clue ‘how to revise’ and are sent upstairs to do it. Each subject will require a different revision methodology too. I have given you some opener, organising questions. Beyond those, it’s useful to review any checklists that teachers send home (the ones that list topics that any test might cover). These can helpfully nudge our offspring into ticking off things they feel knowledgeable or worried about.
It is fantastically useful and good study practice to address ‘knots in one’s learning’ – often the source of stomach knots too. Invite children to “write down or highlight the bits that you really are not sure about or find really tough.” This is the point at which we can feel like we are really getting ‘into the ring’ with a wild horse. Effective revision should feel a little bit like that at the start. It takes courage to admit what you don’t know or don’t understand. This is also the part of the proceedings that demands a lot of parental patience. Instead of looking aghast at their list of ‘learning knots’, congratulate them for being able to list them in the first place. A further, motivating question might be: “Now, would you be ok creating another column on actions you can take to unpick those knots?”. Normally, this is the fun bit; coming up with ideas of who or what might help isn’t too onerous (reminder: the actual revision hasn’t started yet). To learn more about effective revision strategies, particularly for teens, this video from Eton College is really useful.
Consider how you talk about exams within family life. If children are raised to fear them, they likely will.
If parents and carers assume a ‘leave them to it’ approach, and don’t provide the emotional scaffolding or practical help required, children can understandably become overwhelmed. If we teach our children that ‘exams aren’t important’, we do them a disservice. They are coming, whether we like it or not, and that’s why we need to prepare children to navigate the nerves, tame the wild horse (revision) and consider a long-term approach to them. A good family chat about anxiety and its impact on the body is a good place to start (see last week’s Wednesday Wisdom). Developing a homemade mental ‘rucksack’ of family coping strategies to navigate nerves can be fruitful.
A paper very recently published by the Centre for Educational Neuroscience (CEN), showed that successful learning requires some stress. Stress can increase children’s attention and learning capacities in some circumstances, but hinder them in others. It’s about striving, as Goldilocks said, for just the ‘right amount’. This will look different for each child. The latter paper helpfully suggests that adults can help children when they struggle to grasp something, by adding the word ‘yet’ to an otherwise negative sentence: “you haven’t done it yet.” Doing so, imbues the interaction with hopeful optimism. Encouraging children to use the simple self-statement ‘I am excited’ when embarking on challenging tasks, can help them reappraise anxiety as excitement.
Practising mindfulness, breathing techniques (the CEN recommend nasal, slow-paced diaphragmatic breathing) and access to exercise can really, really help too, as can a hearty breakfast at the beginning of the school day.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
For more information on motivating your children’s learning, parents in Tooled Up schools can listen to our podcast with neuroscientist, Professor Paul Howard-Jones and read our top tips on how to effectively engage your child with their school work at home. Use our Family Anxiety Manifesto to encourage your children to cope well with any feelings of anxiety and make sure that you normalise mistakes in family life – read our article to find out why this is so important and take a look at the accompanying book list for further reading suggestions. If you want to help your child to keep calm, try out some of our favourite relaxation exercises, written in conjunction with Dr Anna Colton. They are great for adults too!