Exam tips for parents

Stress is inevitable when your children are facing examinations, and it's likely they will become short-tempered and irrational, so how should you react? Andrew Gillespie offers some dos and don'ts

You may have thought that your teenage child was difficult to cope with before, but now that the exams have started you have probably learnt the true meaning of the word "monster". Faced with numerous written and oral exams, even the most mild-mannered and pleasant teenagers tend to lose any trace of their previous good nature and all hope of reasonable conversation comes to an end. "Was alright" is probably the nearest you will get to a complete sentence until the exams are over. It may, in fact, be the nearest you get to a sentence until they leave university or college.

No matter what you ask them about the exams, there will "be no point telling you because you wouldn't understand", their revision will inevitably be going "OK", and on at least one occasion you will be told that "exams were much easier in your day". And this is just the start. At some point, as you drive them to their exam, you are likely to be asked who the King of England was in 1237; think very carefully at this point, because your failure to answer this question may well be held against you for the rest of your life.

Stress, of course, is a serious problem for students, and as parents we should try to be as tolerant and supportive as we can at this difficult time. All of us can remember that tight feeling in the stomach just before an exam starts and that sinking sensation when we first turn the paper over. Similarly we have probably all had that horrible experience when you are revising and nothing seems to be going in, no matter how hard you study. Faced with such pressure it is not surprising that students become totally irrational around exam time. For example, I remember getting particularly worried before my History A-level about questions on the Renaissance, even though this was not a period I had studied at school and I had no intention of answering any questions on it in the exam.

Typically, students who are working under enormous stress will have difficulty sleeping and will be rather short-tempered. They may also have problems motivating themselves. The task ahead of them may seem so enormous that they just do not know where to start, so they give up. They may struggle to get out of bed, for example, not because of laziness but because they know this will mean they have to face the problem of revising. They are often genuinely scared of starting the day.

What, then, can you do as a parent?

The main thing to remember is that the only thing that will matter to your child at the moment is the next exam. Everything else is an interruption or an irritation. On this basis, whatever you try and do to help is almost inevitably going to be wrong. Having said this, the mere fact that you are there is reassuring. Given the amount of pressure on them at the moment they need someone to shout at, to scream at or simply to ignore.

As a parent you have elected yourself as their punchbag for the next few weeks, and the best thing you can do is to stand and take it. You will undoubtedly end up in a far worse state than your child by the time the exams are over, but at least you will have earned your A grade in parenthood. Although it can be extremely difficult to hold back when you see your children under pressure, all you can really do at this time is to be supportive but not intrusive. Try and give them the space and time to work.

If you do manage to catch your child off guard in a moment of unexpected sanity, you may want to offer to help them with their work; this will earn you further points of merit, but do not be surprised if your offer is returned with a look that could freeze the River Thames. Keep smiling, count to 10 and remember how nice they were as a baby.

At some stage they will almost certainly come to you for comfort. Even the most accomplished students find at least one paper is more difficult than they thought and get upset over the way they performed. In this situation it is up to you to reassure them that however badly they think they have done, it is in fact extremely difficult to assess your own standard in a particular exam. In many cases, the reason that people think it went badly is because they are only remembering the questions they missed out or got wrong, and have lost sight of their overall performance. Year after year I have seen students come out of an exam room almost in tears, only to find in August that they actually did very well.

Students should also remember that what counts in terms of their result is how they do overall. Even if one paper has gone badly, they can still achieve a reasonable grade if they can do better on the other papers. Whatever happens, they should not give up on a subject. If they keep fighting for every point on every paper they may yet surprise themselves.

In terms of revision, your child should try to maintain a steady pace throughout the exam period. Even if there seems a vast amount to do, they should break it down into small sections and choose which areas are the most important and can be realistically covered in the time. "Realistic" is a key word, because there is no point setting themselves too much to do in too short a time. They will only rush through the topics and get flustered. Better to build a little on whatever knowledge they have already, than to try and do everything in one night, get upset and confused and walk into the exam room overtired.

Perhaps the most crucial piece of advice you can give them is that ultimately there are more important things in life than exams. Naturally you want them to do well, but you will not think any less of them if these particular exams do not work out. And whatever happens, however bad it might seem at the time, there is always a solution. During a period of enormous stress, your role is to take some of the pressure off your children by letting them know that you will help them no matter what. They are already putting themselves under great pressure and you do not need to add to it. This does not mean that exams are not important, but do let them know there is a safety net if they happen to fall. Whatever they want to go on to do - whether it be GNVQs, A-levels, a degree or a career - a good result will obviously help, but a bad result is not the end of the world. They can always retake their exams, or find other types of qualifications which would suit their strengths more successfully, or find some job or training which will take them on to new challenges.

So at some point in the new few days, try and let your child know that whatever grade they get, there are always opportunities open to them, and that all you expect is that they do what they can. (The best time may well be at breakfast, when they have their mouth full and cannot easily answer back).

As the days go by, your blood pressure gets higher and your fingernails get shorter, just remember that exams do not last forever. In only a few weeks, it will all be over and you will be free to relax. At least, until the results come out in Augustn The writer is Director of Studies, d'Overbroeck's College, Oxford, and Chief Examiner AS-Level Business Studies.

DON'T SAY

"Everyone gets stressed by exams."

"A little stress is a good thing."

"How did your friends get on?"

"Don't worry, it'll be over soon."

"Everyone else probably found it difficult as well."

Anything beginning with "When I did my exams ..."

DO SAY

"Try to work steadily but don't try and work all night every night. You'll only get over-tired and probably under-perform on the day."

"It's never a good idea to dwell on a paper if you think it went badly - you only tend to remember the parts you got wrong and forget the parts you got right."

"It's the overall result that counts rather than the marks on an individual paper. Don't give up just because one paper went badly."

"No matter what the result, there are always options open to you."

REVISION: HELPFUL CONTACTS

An Internet site to help students with revision opened this week and runs until 2 June. It allows users to e-mail questions direct to teachers, as well as offering the more usual revision tips. Run by the London radio station Capital FM, it can be accessed on www.Capital FM.co.uk

Capital Radio also offers a revision hotline, 0171-484 1111, and a 22-page revision booklet available via the hotline or the Internet site.

Barclays Bank, in conjunction with the Associated Examining Board, produces a useful guide to revision. How To Do Better In Exams is available free. Ring 0800 400100 or write to Barclays Bank plc, FREEPOST (MID 02917), PO Box 545, Coventry CV4 8BR.

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