exam2Professor Dave Putwain led research which found that pupils who worry about their exam performance are more likely to do badly than those who are less anxious.

Dave has studied ways of reducing test anxiety through raising awareness with educators, the public, and through targeted intervention. He believes that schools need to try to gain a ‘student’s eye view’ of exams, through being more aware of the detrimental effects of test anxiety and the ways in which they can be reduced.

As part of his research he has also examined how exam stress can be reduced through students following an on-screen, self-help programme called STEPS (Strategies to Tackle Exam Pressure and Stress). This programme included videos of students discussing how they cope with exam stress, interactive games, quizzes and opportunities for students to practice anxiety management techniques. On average, pupils who were anxious about their exams reported that this was reduced after participating in STEPS.

Dave’s research could have a long-term impact on how teachers and parents approach pupil’s exam anxiety and consequently lead to a reduction in pupil’s stress levels, overall improving their exam performance. The research by Edge Hill University has attracted considerable media coverage, featuring on both ITN and Sky news.

Professor aims to make debilitating exam stress a thing of the past

An education expert from Edge Hill University is training teachers to help students tackle issues around exam stress.

Professor Dave Putwain, who researches exam stress in the Faculty of Education is helping teachers help students to tackle the problem.

Professor Putwain said: “Most students suffer from increased stress before and during exams. For the majority the distress is transient and does them no harm, however for some students exam stress can have a detrimental effect on their wellbeing and lead to academic underachievement.

“Teachers do a fantastic job of supporting students during this difficult time, but there are few resources out there to help them, and they often end up referring students to other services.”

Professor Putwain has joined forces with Clinical Psychologist Dr Ben Aveyard to provide a series of hands-on workshops designed to give teachers the knowledge, skills, and materials to support anxious GCSE and A Level students. The workshops will provide practical support to help schools tackle the distress and underperformance caused by exam stress.

Professor Dave Putwain

Professor Dave Putwain

Professor Putwain said: “This course will equip school staff with the psychological knowledge and therapeutic tools needed to teach resilience skills to students suffering from exam stress. By upskilling teachers and giving them the confidence to provide in-house support during stressful exam periods, schools can reduce the effect of stress on their students’ wellbeing and ensure they perform to their full potential.”

The courses are part of a suite of resources for teachers developed by Professor Putwain in collaboration with Exapt CIC (Community Interest Company), a social enterprise organisation that brings together researchers, clinicians, educators and designers to create innovative and effective ways to promote wellbeing in schools.

The training courses are designed to complement STEPS (Strategies to Tackle Exam Pressure and Stress), a computer-based self-help programme for students, developed in response to Professor Putwain’s long-term research into the causes of exam stress.

David Putwain is a Professor in Education whose acclaimed and much publicised research focuses on the psychological effects of exam pressure. A former teacher who has also worked for a UK exam board, David has contributed to several books and had work published in numerous international academic journals.

More information on the workshops can be found here

Does academic resilience affect GCSE exam anxiety?

Edge Hill Professor Dave Putwain has had a new research paper published in the prestigious British Journal of Educational Psychology.

Professor Putwain’s latest study, Academically buoyant students are less anxious about and perform better in high-stakes examinations, follows his previous research which found that pupils who worry about their exam performance are more likely to do badly than those who are less anxious.

Professor Dave Putwain

Professor Dave Putwain

Professor Dave Putwain said: “The next step in my research was to ascertain whether test anxiety is an antecedent or outcome of academic buoyancy (students’ capacity to successfully overcome setback and challenge that is typical of the ordinary course of everyday academic life) and to discover whether academic buoyancy is related to examination performance. 705 students in their final year of secondary education (Year 11) participated in the study, which required them to self-report data for test anxiety and academic buoyancy.”

Examination performance was taken from the mean English, mathematics and science scores from the high-stakes GCSE exams taken at the end of Year 11.

The study results showed that academic buoyancy protects pupils against viewing exams as threatening by influencing self-regulative processes, and so enables better examination performance.

In turn, worry has a negative effect on academic buoyancy. Tension felt by pupils was also measured, however this did not appear to affect academic buoyancy.

The full article can be viewed here

Professor Dave Putwain has conducted extensive research into test anxiety, which could have a long-term impact on how teachers and parents approach pupil’s exam anxiety and consequently lead to a reduction in pupil’s stress levels, overall improving their exam performance.

Scare tactic research achieves international coverage

New research led by Edge Hill University Educational Psychology expert, Professor David Putwain, was featured in a news piece on USA TV Channel EWTN News.

The Scare Tactic: Do Fear Appeals Predict Motivation and Exam Scores? was published in School Psychology Quarterly, an academic journal of the American Psychological Association, and found that messages that used scare tactics achieved fewer positive results than messages that focused on success.

Watch the full interview below.

How to deal with exam stress

Dr Dave Putwain

Dr Dave Putwain

Exams make most people nervous, but some people, whether they’re doing their GCSE, A levels, finals or professional exams can feel totally panic-stricken.

In this podcast, Dave Putwain, Professor in Education, describes how to calm those nerves and do your best in exams.

Teachers advised to forget the fear factor

Exam StressTeachers who use fear of failure to motivate students prior to exams may be having a negative effect on their success, according to new research led by Edge Hill University Educational Psychology expert, Professor David Putwain.

The Scare Tactic: Do Fear Appeals Predict Motivation and Exam Scores?, which comes at a time of high stress for many students across the country as they approach GCSEs and A Levels, was published in School Psychology Quarterly, an academic journal of the American Psychological Association.

The study looked at different styles of pre-exam persuasive messages used by teachers and the impact they can have on students’ motivation and, ultimately, their academic performance.

Teachers are desperately keen to motivate their students in the best possible way but may not be aware of how messages they communicate to students around the importance of performing well in exams can be interpreted in different ways,” said David.

The study found that messages that used scare tactics, such as “If you fail the exam, you will never be able to get a good job or go to college”, achieved fewer positive results than messages that focused on success, like “The exam is really important as most jobs that pay well require that you pass and if you want to go to college you will also need to pass the exam”.

Students who said they felt threatened by messages that frequently focused on failure reported feeling less motivated and performed worse on the exam than students who reported that their teacher used fewer fear tactics.

“Both messages highlight to students the importance of effort and provide a reason for striving,” said David. “Where these messages differ is some focus on the possibility of success while others stress the need to avoid failure.”

The research involved interviews with 347 students over an 18-month period leading up to their GCSE exams. The students were asked a range of questions, including “How often do your teachers tell you that unless you work hard you will fail your exam?” and “Do you feel worried when your teachers tell you that your exam is getting nearer?”, to measure their level of feeling threatened. They were asked to rate each item on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being “never” and 5 being “most of the time”. At the end of the 18-month period, researchers collected the students’ final grades.

Psychologists who work in or with schools can help teachers consider the types of messages they use in the classroom by emphasising how their messages influence students in both positive and negative ways, and by recommending they consider the messages they currently use and their possible consequences,” added David.

“Teachers should plan what types of messages would be the most effective and how they could be incorporated into the lesson plans.”

David Putwain is a Professor in Education whose acclaimed and much publicised research focuses on the psychological effects of exam pressure. A former teacher who has also worked for a UK exam board, David has contributed to several books and had work published in numerous international academic journals.

The American Psychological Association is the largest scientific and professional organisation representing psychology in the United States. APA’s membership includes nearly 130,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives.

Anxiety hits exam grades, but can be countered


Pupils who worry about their exam performance are more likely to do badly than those who are less anxious, according to new research by Edge Hill University.

However, if young people want to do well in tests, they can manage their anxiety by ensuring they focus on the task in hand rather than getting distracted.

These are the findings of the latest studies investigating how pupils feel before and during exams, how they cope with stress, and subsequent results, which will be unveiled at the British Educational Research Association’s annual conference today (Thursday).

Academics at Edge Hill University and the University of South Australia have being working with researchers from the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, England’s largest GCSE exam board, to investigate links between anxiety and exam grades.

Researcher Dr Dave Putwain, Reader in Education at Edge Hill University, said: “There is no doubt that a high degree of worry over one’s performance, or the consequences of one´s performance, has a detrimental effect on GCSE results. Our study, which was controlled for prior attainment and also how good students were at dealing with exam pressure, found that increased worry still predicted lower achievement.”

The first study involved surveying 325 pupils from eight secondary schools in the North-West in the run-up to their final GCSE exams.  The teenagers were asked whether they agreed with 44 statements about their possible anxieties concerning exams, how confident they felt in dealing with this stress and about strategies they might use to cope with it. Their comments included feeling nervous, the consequences of ‘failing’ and how they would be viewed by others if they performed badly.

“Our research found that worrying about exams significantly correlated with relatively bad GCSE performance,” said Dr Putwain. “However, pupils who acknowledged anxiety but reacted to it by ensuring they prepared well, tended to do better than those who did not.”

They conducted a second study to investigate ways to reduce anxiety by getting them to follow an on-screen self-help programme.

STEPS (Strategies to Tackle Exam Pressure and Stress) included videos of former students talking about how they coped, interactive quizzes and games, study skills elements and opportunities for pupils to practice anxiety management techniques, such as deep breathing and positive visualisation.

On average, those pupils who took STEPS who were anxious about their exams beforehand reported that this was reduced after taking part in the programme.

Dr Putwain said: “Although STEPS is still in the piloting phase, we believe it might have a long-term future as an alternative to other approaches in reducing pupils’ exam anxiety, which have tended to involve face-to-face sessions with educational psychiatrists or counsellors, We are cautiously optimistic that our intervention may indeed offer these students ways of identifying and managing test anxiety.”

A symposium, Reducing debilitating exam anxiety in GCSE students, is being chaired by Dr Putwain at BERA’s annual conference on 5th September.

Can teachers influence students’ views on GCSEs

Dr Dave Putwain

Dr Dave Putwain

A prestigious research grant has been awarded to Edge Hill University to explore the ways in which teachers communicate the value of GCSEs to students and what impact these messages have.

Dr Dave Putwain, Reader in Psychology has secured a British Academy Leverhulme Small Research Grant of £10,000 with Richard Remedios from the University of Durham to support an on-going project to look at student motivation, learning and achievement.

In this project, he will focus on the messages Key Stage 4 teachers communicate to students in Years 10 and 11 about the importance of their GCSEs. The aim is to find out if these are successful in influencing students’ beliefs and motivations about the value of their exams.

The research will also examine how individual characteristics influence whether these messages are interpreted differently by students.

This latest work builds on Dr Putwain’s extensive research around the psychological factors that influence and which in turn are influenced by learning and achievement, particularly fear-of-failure, motivation, competence beliefs and the classroom environment.

Explaining more about the project, Dr Putwain said: “A key part of the research will look at the learning environment and how this can influence student motivation. As well as the lessons they plan and deliver, the classroom teacher is central to creating and maintaining a positive learning environment through the values they promote and their relationships with students. We want to know whether what they are saying is having a positive or negative impact.

“These messages are very important because they will determine whether a student will aspire to have a good job, go into further education, or simply not care about whether they achieve or not. It can have a real impact on the route they choose to take and their own self-esteem.”

He added: “The findings from the study will allow us to identify which messages are most effective for which groups of students. We plan to share this information with the educational community and eventually integrate findings into initial teacher training courses.”

Teachers are being invited to participate in this project by completing a series of short questionnaires. It does not matter what subject you teach, what level of experience you have or the type of students you teach. For more information about the project and to register your interest to take part in the survey, visit the website www.edgehill.ac.uk/psychology/valueproject/.

Leading educational psychologist takes helm at BPS

A leading researcher from Edge Hill University has been elected chair of the British Psychological Society’s (BPS) Education Section.

Dr Dave Putwain, Reader in Psychology, will take the helm for a 12-month term to help promote psychology in education and the interests of psychologists engaged in schools, further and higher education, child guidance and the wider community.

Talking about his new role, Dr Putwain said: “It is a great honour to be acknowledged by my peers and fellow professionals in this way. The section has a strong historical presence and I’ve always admired the work the group does. I feel that I will bring energy and fresh ideas to the table.”

A teacher for nine years before entering academia, Dr Putwain has always been interested in the psychology of teaching and what makes children achieve.

He has carried out extensive research into the effects on students of exam pressure from parents and teachers. His main interests focus on the psychological factors that influence learning and achievement, particularly theories of motivation, self-competence beliefs, fear of failure and the classroom environment.

“I’m very passionate about my work,” said Dr Putwain, “which is why I’ve been a member of the Psychology of Education section with the BPS for about 18 years. I’m looking forward to ensuring that it remains an excellent forum to exchange ideas and promote research into the psychology of education.

“I really want to use my year in office to encourage further collaboration between academics, teachers and educational psychologists. For example a lot of teachers don’t realise the importance of research, which is something I’d like to address. Also, I think some academics lose touch at grassroots level so I’d like to ensure that this doesn’t happen. Ideally, I’d like to build stronger relationships between the different groups as I believe there are real benefits from talking to each other and understanding each other’s needs.

“I’m sure the next year will involve lively discussion of contemporary issues and stimulate research into matters related to the psychological aspects of education.”

Dave Putwain is an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society and the Chartered Psychology. He taught in various schools and colleges from 1994 to 2003 before studying for a Doctorate at the University of Manchester from 2003 to 2006. He took up his position at Edge Hill University in 2006 and established a research group and undergraduate programme in Educational Psychology in 2009.

The British Psychological Society is the representative body for psychology and psychologists in the UK.

How to beat exam stress as teachers boycott SATs

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.”

Edge Hill researcher receives national media attention

Research carried out by academics at Edge Hill University and Manchester University, which looks at the type of exam pressure exerted on pupils by parents and teachers, has received extensive national media coverage including both Sky and ITN news channels.

Teenagers have for years told anxious parents to “back off” in the run-up to exams as the pressure they apply only makes matters worse. Now researchers have confirmed that their protests are justified.

Parents are not, however, the only ones who apply the wrong type of pressure, says a team of researchers from Edge Hill and Manchester universities. Teachers who try to scare students into swotting for exams should also rethink their tactics because higher anxiety usually leads to lower scores.

Dr Dave Putwain and his colleagues analysed the association between teachers’ and parents’ behaviour and the anxiety levels of 175 sixth-form college students. They also measured the anxiety of 224 GCSE candidates and compared them with their exam scores. Some GCSE students reported that they were suffering from headaches and muscle tension, and even had trouble breathing, as the exams approached.

“Parental pressure never really works,” Dr Putwain will tell the British Educational Research Association Conference in Manchester. “Parents need to be very careful about the messages they are conveying. For example, they 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.”

Teachers should also emphasise the benefits of learning and achieving rather than the consequences of failure, he says. However, Dr Putwain, a senior lecturer in psychology at Edge Hill University, says that most schools do not take exam-related anxiety sufficiently seriously.

Some conclude that it is something that young people need to go through. “They reason that exams are stressful but that’s part of life. Life is stressful,” he says.

Some schools do make an effort to ease exam nerves. “I know of one school that gives anxious children chocolate and a pat on the head immediately before an exam,” Dr Putwain says. “Pupils at another school I have visited can spend some time in a relaxation room that has soft lighting, comfortable furniture and soothing sounds.

“Our GCSE study showed that such relaxation exercises probably help, provided they are offered far enough in advance of the exams. But in general the stress-reducing tactics that schools employ are very hit and miss. I don’t think there is much understanding that many teachers could reduce their pupils’ anxiety levels by adjusting their own practice.

“They might also improve their pupils’ performance in the process. Exam stress may not always have a big impact on exam scores but it can make the difference between one grade and the next.”

Dr Putwain and his colleagues believe that schools should provide more guidance for parents on how to avoid increasing children’s stress levels. They should also try to gain a “student’s eye view” of examinations.

“For example, we know that many students do not like sitting examinations in a big hall — they prefer small rooms. In large halls they can get the sense that everyone is working except them and panic can set in. They also dislike the impersonality of this type of exam-taking, particularly if they do not know the invigilator. Just having an invigilator who is familiar to them can help.”

Clashing coursework deadlines is another common stressor in the lead-up to exams. “Some schools very sensibly try to ensure this does not happen but others say they cannot interfere with what individual subject departments are doing,” Dr Putwain says. “I think they should.”

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