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[ Newsletter - September 2013 ]

Coping With Exams:
How Parents Can Help
By: Kerry Acheson

Few things invite more dread and tummy-butterflies than the word “exams” to a learner. Exams are a stressful event that requires coping. Yet exam-writing is inescapable and forms a large part of the schooling experience. While the onus is on the learner to take responsibility for their studying, learners need guidance and support in order to cope well with exams. In addition to the support of teachers, as a  parent, you can play a powerful role in facilitating exam-coping.

Dundas et al (2009) make the point that while a certain amount of anxiety enhances study performance, too much anxiety causes symptoms of distress that actually hinder performance. Excessive nightmares, worrying, heart-pounding, negativity or changes in eating and sleeping are some of the signs that may indicate problematic anxiety. Creating a learning-conducive home environment, sharing creative ideas on study skills, and containing exam-related stress will help your child to navigate the exam period more effectively. Ideas on how to achieve this follow, and are drawn from research as well as from my own experience as a student, psychologist and high school teacher.

1. Encourage Problem-Focused and Adaptive Emotion-Focused Coping

Zeidner (1995) describes “coping” as all of the ways that a person attempts to deal with the challenges of a perceived stressor. Zeidner goes on to differentiate between 2 different types of coping that students facing exams employ: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping refers to strategies that involve managing the problem by removing or reducing the stressor. For example, planning or studying reduces anxiety through tackling the problem of being unprepared. On the other hand, emotion-focused coping refers to strategies that involve managing the emotional distress associated with the stressor. Rather than tackling the problem, anxiety can be reduced, for instance, by down-playing the severity of the situation. Another type of emotion-focused coping is avoidance, where the emotional distress is reduced by avoiding the stressor altogether, for instance by closing the books and watching tv instead.

Zeidner makes the point that not all forms of coping are adaptive. While anxiety may be reduced, this may not necessarily correlate with a positive exam outcome. Problem-focused coping strategies are viewed as adaptive as they involve taking practical steps to manage the required tasks. Emotion-focused coping, on the other hand, can either be adaptive or maladaptive. For example, reducing anxiety with the use of exercise, humour or talking to a friend, may allow the student to return to the task of studying feeling calmer. On the other hand, using drugs, alcohol or excessive disengagement would be counterproductive. Successful exam management requires each student to take into account their own personal and situational factors and come up with a combination of problem-focused and adaptive emotion-focused coping methods (Zeidner, 1995). You can support your child in this by developing their awareness of which coping strategies to apply and when.

2. Foster Incremental Rather Than Entity Beliefs about Coping

Doron et al (2009) emphasises that choosing an exam coping strategy depends on the beliefs that the individual holds regarding exams. In this regard, Doron et al distinguish between entity beliefs and incremental beliefs. Entity beliefs hold that one’s ability to cope with exams is an unchangeable, static quality. In other words, you either have it or you don’t. On the other hand, incremental beliefs maintain that one’s ability to cope with exams is fluid, and can be enhanced through putting in enough effort. Doron et al suggest that incremental beliefs are associated with managing the exam process more effectively. This is because it relates to having a sense of control over the exam situation. Having a sense of being in control is said to be associated with using fewer ineffectual coping strategies such as excessive avoidance. Perceived control is also associated with more active use of a broader repertoire of coping strategies, including adaptive emotion-focused and problem-focused coping strategies. Therefore, it is beneficial to encourage your child to believe that with sufficient effort, they have the power to learn to increasingly gain mastery over the exam process.

3. Empathise, Don’t Pressurize

Try to show support by acknowledging the pressurized and stressful nature of exams. Show empathy by acknowledging and validating your child’s feelings. Normalise the fact that every individual has different strengths and struggles. Expect them to be more tense than usual and allow space for this. At the same time, ensure they get the message that you believe in them.

Dundas et al (2009) suggests that coping is more effective when learners focus on one small task at a time rather than focusing on outcome such as specific marks. Encourage your child by making comments such as, “just do your best, and don’t worry about the rest”. This will help alleviate unnecessary pressure and will help them to view the exams process as a challenge rather than an overwhelming threat. This is because by focusing on what they do have control over – effort rather than marks –they can perceive themselves as having agency within the process. Focusing on effort rather than outcome boosts self-esteem, as you can convey the message that you are proud of how they have approached the process thus far. Furthermore, praising your child for the effort they have already put into exam preparation will motivate them to keep on going. 

4. Maintaining a Facilitative Environment

Support your child’s studying by keeping the home atmosphere as calm and quiet as possible. If this is not possible, arrange alternatives such as study sessions at the library. Encourage your child to follow a healthy diet that maximises Omega-rich food and minimizes excessive sugar and caffeine. Promote regular exercise, which is an excellent de-stressor and re-energiser. Emphasise the importance of a decent night’s sleep, which will aid creative thinking and problem-solving on the day of the exam. 

5. Promote Stress Management

Teach your child to be self-aware and to observe what happens with their thoughts, feelings and body when they are anxious. Encourage them to catch and replace negative thoughts. Putting affirmation statements up around the house can help. Remind them of times in the past when they were able to successfully overcome a difficult challenge, and apply it to the current situation. Encourage your child to ask themselves, “...What do I need right now, what will help me..?” A repertoire of relaxation techniques can be developed: this can be anything from listening to music, to having a bubble bath, to phoning a friend and doing exercise. Deep breathing exercises, or visualising a peaceful scene can also be effective. Relaxation techniques can be used to decrease anxiety sufficiently enough that studying can be resumed. However, learners should be warned against the temptation to use periods of relaxation and recreation to procrastinate. These enjoyable activities should be frequently used as rewards for completed study sessions.

6. Instill Effective Time Management

One of the most useful ways you can support your child’s exam-related time management skills is to encourage them to develop a personal study schedule. A study schedule helps to keep track of how much studying is required given the time constraints. This helps minimize the risk of running out of time. In so doing, anxiety is decreased, and motivation is increased. A study schedule is made by calculating how many days are available for studying until the end of exams, estimating how many hours of studying are needed, and then allocating these to specific days on the study schedule. Encourage your child to become aware of the days and the times of the day that they are most alert so that they can schedule more intensive study tasks to those times, and vice verse. The study schedule should be a flexible work in progress that can be reviewed and tailored along the way. Each completed study session should be ticked off with relish to aid a sense of progress. 

7. Encourage Creative Note-Making

Help your child to understand that just because they have read and even understood something does not mean they have learnt it. Making notes helps them to remain focused and actively process the information in a more meaningful and memorable way. Making notes helps learners to reduce the material to be more manageable, make the important points stand out and make it more meaningful by explaining it in their own words. Notes can be made to stand out visually using headings and sub-headings, numbering, colour, key words and phrases rather than full sentences. Bringing in a more visual element also makes notes more effective, through using symbols, diagrams, flow charts or mindmaps. Notes should also make use of mnemonics, which are memory devices that use associations. The sillier and more creative the mnemonic, the easier it will be to remember. For example, acronyms make list-learning easier by taking the first letter in each item and making one word out of the letters. So the colours: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet can be remembered by the acronym “RoyGBiv”. Effective usage of notes requires repetition. Encourage your child to further encode their learning into their long term memory through re-reading their notes, summarising their summaries, practicing exam questions, and teaching the information out loud to their friend, dog or teddy.  

8. Foster Calmness On the Day of the Exam

Encourage your child to have breakfast on the day of the exam. Help them to get there slightly early to avoid panicked last minute rushing. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, calmly visualising the exam procedure and using positive affirmations can calm anxious learners. Students should avoid pre-exam discussions with peers who are likely to increase their anxiety. If your child suffers from “going blank” encourage them to take a few breaths, tell themselves “...it’s ok to be nervous, this will pass...” They can use scrap paper to jot down any freely associated ideas to do with the question as this might serve as a memory jog, or else they can move on to an easier question first.

Mastering the art of exam preparation is a journey that is fine-tuned over time. As a parent, you can play a significantly supportive role in this journey, as you empower your child to expand their repertoire of exam-coping skills.

References

Doron, J.; Stephan, Y.; Boiche, J.; & Le Scanff, C. (2009). Coping with examinations: Exploring relationships between students’coping strategies, implicit theories of ability, and perceived control. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 79, (515-528)

Dundas, I.; Wormnes, B.; & Hauge, H. (2009). Making exams a manageable task. Nordic Psychology, 61(1), 26-41

Zeidner, M. (1995). Adaptive Coping with Test Situations: A review of the literature. Educational Psychologist, 30(3), 123-133




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