Can we help students to manage and minimise GCSE exam stress?

10th May 2012

Research has shown that test anxiety can present a significant threat to the well-being of students and increase the likelihood of educational underachievement. Severe anxiety can interfere with students’ ability to perform well in an exam and to recall important subject knowledge. Test anxiety is therefore a form of ’noise’ in that it can hinder qualification awarding bodies in measuring students’ true abilities, skills and knowledge. 

As part of a larger programme on test anxiety, CERP researchers and the psychology department at Edge Hill University designed STEPS - Strategies to Tackle Exam Pressure and Stress.

STEPS consists of six sessions that are delivered via a CD or school servers to GCSE students. The six sessions cover:

  • Understanding how we think and feel about challenges: this session covers the signs of stress and anxiety, the reasons why students find exams stressful and the effects of stress and anxiety on performance.
  • Making our thoughts work for us: this session explains how feelings and behaviours are linked to our thoughts, how to identify Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATs), and how to challenge NATs and replace them with positive messages.
  • Staying focused and calm during an exam: this is a practical skills-based session that covers the physical symptoms of stress and explains how to combat these symptoms using deep breathing and muscle relaxation techniques.
  • Effective revision and time management: this session touches on overcoming procrastination and ways to prepare for exams, for example by creating revision timetables. It also covers various revision techniques (e.g. active reading).
  • Setting your goals and sticking to them: this is a practical skills-based session which covers getting motivated, using visualisation, and making visualisation work for the individual.
  • Getting it right on exam day: the last session covers emotional and physical wellbeing, and an overview of what has been included in STEPS.

Each session includes interactive quizzes, games, and ‘talking-head’ videos of recent GCSE students and their experiences and responses to test anxiety. The STEPS programme is accompanied by a booklet designed to encourage self-reflection and practice of anxiety-tackling techniques.

Does it work?

As the next stage in the development of STEPS, we have designed a study to explore whether the intervention has a positive effect on students’ levels of test anxiety (see a recent article in SecEd for more detail on the background to the study).

STEPS has been distributed to ten schools in North-West England, and approximately 2000 Year 10 and 11 students have taken part. The students were randomly allocated to one of two groups: an experimental group which completed the STEPS programme in class time or as homework, and a control group which will complete STEPS at a later date.  Students in both groups were asked to complete a questionnaire which measures test anxiety, academic buoyancy (the ability to “bounce back” from academic setbacks) and coping strategies before and after the study.

If STEPS is effective, we would expect to see a change in these measures among students in the experimental group, but minimal changes among students in the control group. The findings of this study will be available later in the year and will hopefully tell us if STEPS is useful in helping students minimise and manage their test anxiety. The research team will be taking lessons from this pilot study and using the findings to inform future research endeavours, as part of their goal to help students manage their test anxiety.

Shireen Sadreddini is a Graduate Researcher at CERP

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