Exam Season: Anxiety, Research and Damned Hard Graft

In her latest post, Zoe Enser (@GreeboRunner) reflects on the journey that gets her pupils feeling relaxed and ready for their exams.

‘Should we be worried we aren’t more worried about our exam?’ pondered my year 11 last week. They genuinely were bemused as to why their anxiety wasn’t through the roof. They didn’t feel the urge to burst into tears or uncontrollable rages whenever they were reminded that their first major English exam was now only mere days away and this was causing them some confusion. But not, on the whole, anxiety.

I reassured them that what they were feeling was fine. Even if I thought it wasn’t, there would have been little point in telling them that now. It wasn’t like they were going to be able stick two years’ worth of knowledge into the brains ready for action at this stage anyway. It really wouldn’t help. ‘Of course you aren’t nervous!’ I told them. ‘You have been preparing for this for years!’ From the first time they opened a book or picked up a pen, they have been on a journey in English, which for some of them is about to end, at least in academic terms. It’s time for the final performance. Like the players in a football match they now need to burst out of the tunnel and get onto that field. Quite simply, they are ready.

As always though, this conversation has stayed with me and prompted me to start thinking beyond the last few months of revision. What had I done differently with this group than with some of my previous groups whose exam anxiety had been quite palpable at this stage of the proceedings?

This is a group I have been working with since they were handed to me at the end of year 8, by their exceptional year 7 and 8 teacher who felt that they needed more of a push than he would be able to give them. They are a lively and interested group, creative in their thinking and generally hardworking. They are therefore a real pleasure to work with.

Their interest and strong knowledge base they arrived with, has enabled me to explore aspects of my practice which I wanted to develop in a different way, based on my renewed engagement with research and a new curriculum model that was emerging alongside it. That means that for nearly the last four years they have been experiencing a plethora of regular opportunities to recap knowledge; they have been exposed to a curriculum where topics, themes and texts have been carefully interwoven and we have circled around to prior learning again and again and again to build a deeper understanding of the texts and ideas than I have ever done previously. They have seen model after model, been questioned at least a billion times, waiting with trepidation for my ‘that’s a really interesting point, please elaborate’ to be thrown their way, and have read a number of high quality texts, which are both core to the syllabus and beyond it, included to enrich and expand their experiences in English. We have pursued duality, gender and class across a range of genres, forms and eras,

Another way I aimed to enrich their understanding of Literature as a whole, was when looking at the Unseen poetry element of the GCSE syllabus; here I have used a range of poems which are either written by one of the main poets we use for the comparison section or have a thematic link. As well as giving them exposure to a range of different texts to analysis, it has also encouraged them to think deeply about their overall understanding of the topic. When they examined Heaney’s ‘Death of a Naturalist’ it enabled them to both explore Heaney’s writing style further, and to consider how themes run across his work. They were also able to draw comparisons with poems such as Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’ and Shelley’s ‘Ozymandais’, thereby reviewing their knowledge of these texts in a brand new context.

Most importantly though they have been ‘SLOP’ping (see Adam Boxer’s blog about this) until the cows come home. They have built up their practice from year 8, gradually developing their critical, creative and polemic writing skills over time, producing a whole host of different texts and essays in order to really hone their ability to write critically and creatively. Now they hardly bat an eyelid when I say we are going to write an essay. It has become almost like second nature.

All along the way I have encouraged their metacognitive abilities too, and supported their developing self-regulation. I needed them to be as independent as possible by this stage, a skill which is going to stand them in good stead for the next part of their journey, so I needed to create the right conditions for this. This has meant that they have been given lots of opportunities to reflect on their own work, even writing critical analysis of their own use of language and structure and reflecting on their overall success. I have devised activities to enable them to tease out their own gaps in knowledge, empowering them to take charge of their own revision. We have used memory clocks, flashcards, self-quizzing and Seneca to support this. I’ve modelled ways to do this and shared Dunlosky with them on more than one occasion to back up my methods. They even have knowledge of Ebbinghaus, although they wanted to dismiss him as one of those ‘Victorian Quacks’. Of course you can lead a horse to water . . . I am sure there are some who know that a few more focused sessions would be making them feel even more prepared right now. I’m not totally deluded. Teenagers aren’t always honest with themselves about how much work they have done, let alone their English teacher. 

And the proof of the pudding is always in the eating. The exam is yet to be say and August results’ day will bring what August results’ day will bring. Some will completely smash it. Some might just limp across that finish line, thrown by a slight curveball on the day. But whatever that day reveals, I know that on the whole we have done all we can to achieve success. There has been a lot of hard graft on both sides.

I consider myself lucky to have been working with this group for a number of years. I cherish the continuity we have been able to have and I know not everyone gets to have that opportunity with their groups. It means though that they know my way of working. I in return know their work inside and out and what can re-motivate them when the going gets tough. On the whole they have been receptive, thoughtful and appreciative. We have had lots of laughter (we had to build our own Father Ted ‘Not Real’ board because of some of the nonsensical beliefs that were floating to the surface just in the last three weeks), the occasional tear, but not really a cross word. They know that I want them to succeed and have always been pushing them to be the best they can be, even when I’m making them explode yet another quote.

To reflect back again on what they were asking me; ‘should we be worried we are not worried?’ I think the fact that I’m not worried either probably just about says it all. All of the rehearsals are over now. It’s show time!

Teach Like Nobody’s Watching: The Essential Guide to Effective and Efficient Teaching is available for pre-order now!

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