An article for students from Professor Kevin Woods and psychologists at Manchester University.
A few weeks ago, schools and colleges opened their doors again to all students. In many ways, it’s “back to normal” but some things are still a bit different, especially if you were due to take exams this summer. Last year, we spoke to students to help us understand what it might feel like when exams are changed.
Nobody has had a typical school or college experience over the past year. Settling back in to working in a classroom again may feel difficult and you may feel less motivated, or out of practice. Some people may expect you feel relieved or happy that you are not taking “normal” exams this year - you may feel this way, but you may also feel frustrated that you didn’t get the chance to prove your abilities, or to have the experience that you expected. This could feel disappointing, annoying, or demotivating.
You may be wondering about your final grades and whether they will be what you would expect. If you prefer classwork to exams, you might be feeling positive about your grades. You may still feel uncertain about what is going to happen about your grades, or feel you haven’t been given enough information. Looking ahead, you might be concerned about having missed skills or learning that you think you would have gained if the pandemic hadn’t happened.
It is understandable and normal to feel some, or all, of these things at the moment. It will take time to adjust to being back in class, but however you are feeling, some of the following things might help you, or someone you know:
There is always some uncertainty coming up to exams
Although things may have felt more uncertain this year, it might be helpful to remember that this uncertainty is not a new thing – gaining qualifications is always an uncertain process. You never know what questions will come up in exams, how your assessments will go, or how you will be feeling on the day.
Even if you are generally a relaxed person, it’s normal to feel more pressure in the weeks leading up to exams and assessments. This is not always a bad thing as some pressure can help people to focus on doing their best. Keeping this in mind can help put worries into perspective and keep you from worrying too much about being too worried!
Take control where you can
It may feel like your grades have been taken out of your hands by exam changes but it’s important to remember that you are being assessed based on your own work, and that you still have control over this. Your teachers will do everything necessary to ensure that your grades reflect your own effort and achievements, and any assessments will be based only on the things you have been taught.
There will be careful checking of teacher assessments by schools, colleges, and the exam boards, and it won’t just be down to the judgement of one teacher. So it’s important to focus on what you can do now to show the best of your learning over the coming weeks. Focusing on your class work, homework assignments, non-examination assessments, and revision for these will contribute directly to your grades and will help keep anxiety at bay.
Find out what you need to know
Over the next few weeks, your teachers will be explaining the plans for their assessments for your grades. Be confident to ask questions of your teachers and share with them any thoughts you might have about your studies or grades. They have your best interests in mind and will do their best to explain how assessment and grading will work in your school or college.
Our research has shown that students feel reassured to find out specifically what tests and assessments will be like, and how exactly to prepare for them. This knowledge gives you the power to take control, so do ask teachers about anything that you are uncertain about. Your questions might be the ones another student is thinking about and so hearing the answer may help them too.
Seeing things in perspective
Psychologists have found that the way we think about a situation can affect the way we feel about it. Some of our recent research found that those students who kept in mind the reason why exams had to be cancelled, were better able to accept the situation and seemed to feel less upset about it. This year, the UK government asked everybody about the best way to do exams in 2021 and over 50,000 students gave their views. The plans that have been made are the best way forward under difficult circumstances, and one of many adaptations that have had to be made across schools, colleges, workplaces and society.
Remember that wherever you are hoping your grades will take you (to college, university, or employment), people understand what has happened. The place you move on to will adapt their plans to take into account missed learning and teacher assessment grades, to ensure that you are not disadvantaged by this year’s assessment arrangements.
Actively managing your wellbeing
Looking after your physical, mental and social well-being will help you manage the return to full-time classes and the next few weeks of study and tests. During the recent periods of change, daily routines may have been disrupted. Try to establish, or re-establish, routines in the things that we know keep you healthy such as:
- socialising – spending time with particular friends or family who make us feel happy
- relaxing – whether actively, like playing a game, or passively, like watching a film
- exercising – which can ‘work off’ stress and can get you outdoors too
- eating – keeping mealtimes regular and balancing healthy options with treats
- sleep – for many people ‘bedtimes’ went out of the window in lockdown so reinstating it will help manage the busier days ahead
Different aspects of well-being are important for different people. Some people really need their sleep in order to work well and manage their emotions, and others can manage a few days with less sleep. Other people really feel the need to exercise off excess energy every day, whereas other people manage just as well exercising two or three times a week. The main thing is to be aware of what is important for your well-being and to actively protect that at this time.
Work out what you are worrying about - then make a plan for it
Grades are a gateway to the next stage in your life: to another stage of education, or into training or work. But none of us can perfectly predict our grades, and sometimes people worry about not getting the grades they want and feeling upset, disappointed or embarrassed. If you feel this way it can help to think about a ‘plan B’ – what you will do if you do not get the grades you are hoping for.
Talking to teachers (or perhaps parents) about your options for retakes, or alternative college or career plans, can relieve stress. This can help parents too who may worry about you putting pressure on yourself. Thinking a little bit about the future can help alleviate stress and anxiety and allow you to concentrate on your studies and tests now, knowing that, whatever the outcomes, your summer grades will be the beginning of a life journey full of possibilities.
If you need help to cope during this uncertain time you can talk to friends, parents or carers, or teachers, or to one of the professional services/ organisations below.
- Childline – call 0800 1111
- Mind – call 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans – call 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Or call NHS 111 or your GP – they can assist in providing the mental health support you may need
Prof. Kevin Woods, Dr. Tee McCaldin, Dr. Kerry Brown, Dr. Rob Buck, Dr. Nicola Fairhall, Emma Forshaw and Dr. David Soares.