Monday, September 30, 2013

Managing exam stress

Here in S'pore, exam stress is stratospheric. It's evident in the teary eyes that received the graded prelim exam papers from me this morning. It's hard not to feel for them that didn't do well. They have been working themselves hard and are still not getting the results they are hoping for. Stress, according to one student, messes with the mind during the paper and while the question is worded one way, they read it in another. The result is pretty much a foregone conclusion.

I say again, exams are not a bad thing. However the way in which we prepare students to take exams is strategically ineffective. What we have done is to set up the year-end exam as the hardest thing a student will accomplish in the year. All the preparation, training, practice and revision programmes are engineered to give the students the impression that this is it, do or die. They may have been futzing around in the past but this one last hurdle is make-or-break, good luck and I hope to see you on the other side.

Although we believe that this is the way to motivate the kids to make that final push, for the majority of the kids, all we've accomplished is to develop a phobia for the final exam. Hence the stress, paralysis and everything else bad associated with final exams.

The person who can figure out how to make exams less stressful, yet maintain standards of academic rigour could stand to make some serious bucks. That would be me. However, I'll dispense my advice right here... which means no one will ever take it seriously. Regardless, here goes:

Never set the final exam up to be the hardest thing a student will accomplish in the year. Instead, make it the easiest thing they will ever do in your class for the year. If the kids are sitting for H1 GP make them submit undergraduate-level research papers on a regular (though less frequent) basis. Make them write 2000, 2500 word essays, with full and proper citations from the latest, most up-to-date sources. When they're used to that, sitting for H1 GP would be relatively chicken-feed. 500-800 words, argumentative, current affairs-type essay in 90 minutes? A comprehension paper on one or two short opinion pieces? Pffft. I've synthesized more demanding stuff in Mr X's classroom exercises.

If we set the exams up to only test the most rudimentary basics of what we teach in class instead of portraying them as the year-end Monster we make them out to be, no more exam stress. But it will be a new classroom dynamic to manage. I never said it was going to be easy for us teachers to make such a radical paradigm shift.

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