Exam time is looming and for many pupils this can lead to anxiety and stress. Even this week teachers across the country were boycotting this year’s primary school English tests for putting children under too much pressure.

As the debate rolls on, Edge Hill University’s expert Dr David Putwain, a senior lecturer in psychology, is worried that most schools do not take exam-related anxiety seriously and wants to put that right.

He has carried out extensive research around the subject of exam stress and psychological factors that impact on performance for a number of years.

“What concerns me” explained Dr Putwain “is that children are defining themselves by how well they are achieving in their exams. This of course gives weight to the argument that the controversial SATs should be scrapped because of the negative impact it can have on children. Suddenly, pupils don’t see learning as fun and enjoyable anymore but instead are driven by outcomes and meeting targets, which can put them under undue stress. This is wrong. Regardless of whether they end up scrapping the Key Stage 2 national curriculum tests or not, what I want to do is to help individuals and schools deal with the implications of potential exam stress and to find ways to combat anxiety.”

He has devised seven golden rules to help beat exam stress:

  • Use a deep learning strategy. Try different ways of learning and make the material you need to learn for the exam interesting and personally relevant. For example, experiment with colours, rhymes and pictures.
  • Learn about stress. It might be that you don’t feel confident with the course material, or don’t work well under timed conditions. By realising that personal anxiety depends partly on factors to do with you, you can learn to bring it under control.
  • Identify your self-talk and keep a diary. Try to become aware of what you are thinking when you become anxious about exams and write it down. Try and work out how your thoughts about exams are helping to maintain that anxiety and how different thoughts could result in less stress. Use those new positive thoughts the next time you are becoming anxious about an exam.
  • Practice exams under timed conditions. The more you get used to working under time pressure, the less anxiety you experience.
  • Learn breathing techniques to promote relaxation. Controlling the breathing can help to promote a sense of calm. Exams might never be relaxing, but the techniques used in meditation and yoga might help to create enough mental space so that you are less likely to go blank in an exam.
  • Ask about access arrangements. Contact your exams officer and explain how you react in exams. It is possible for you to sit your exam in an alternative venue to a big hall, such as a classroom or a library.
  • Improve your exam-taking skills. Look at previous exam papers and the type of questions they are asking and work out how to go about maximising the marks in your answers. Learn what the examiners are looking for.

Dr Putwain said: “Teachers and parents should be aware that comparing their child with other academically capable children can add to the pressure. They should make it clear that young people can still feel good about themselves even if they do not do so well in examinations. They should also emphasise the benefits of learning and achieving rather than the consequences of failure.”

Dr Putwain and the University of Manchester are about to carry out an innovative pilot with children who suffer from exam-related stress to help them retrain the brain and reduce their anxieties.

The unique computer training package they have devised is based on similar techniques to that which psychologists use to treat patients with clinical anxiety disorder and those who have panic attacks. The idea is to help young people disengage from the threatening way in which they view exams. It is hoped they will become less stressed as a result of the techniques and it will improve their exam performance.

A group of 14 to 16 year olds who have been identified as being at risk from exam stress have been chosen to trial the brand new software. By the end of the pilot, it should help them to retrain their thought processes and improve the way they cope with exams.

He explained: “If youngsters are badly affected by exam pressure then that is cause for concern and its impact on students must be understood. This is why this pilot study is important in helping us to determine whether we can devise techniques to help anxious pupils perform well and not fail. If we can show that this technique works on a small scale basis and achieves the desired results, it could be rolled out on a much wider scale if funding becomes available, which would be fantastic for anxious pupils.”