As students across worldwide brace themselves for a series of frantic revision sessions in preparation for exams, bowing to a demanding exam timetable, schools embark on what’s renowned for being the most stressful time of the academic year.
We investigated exactly what this means for students and teachers, and whether or not this is in fact the best way to assess student learning.
It’s only the second cohort of students to face the new GCSE exams, introduced by Conservative MP Michael Gove last year. According to Gove, the new exams were designed to be “more demanding, more fulfilling, and more stretching” in order to “give our young people the broad, deep and balanced education which will equip them to win in the global race”.
As a result, each GCSE has been designed to be more challenging, covering more content, and tested almost exclusively by summer examinations. This has resulted in what teachers are referring to as the “exam factory” approach to assessments, which sees students sitting up to 28 exams in just two or three weeks.
As you might imagine, this is having a profound impact on the wellbeing of students across the country who are buckling under the weight of mounting exam pressure. So much so that the NSPCC reported that the number of referrals by schools in England seeking mental health treatment for students increased by more than a third between 2015-2018. A survey conducted by London Metropolitan University suggests that this directly links to the exam season, with 94% of secondary school teachers agreeing that students were driven towards stress-related conditions during exam periods.
With an increasing emphasis placed on the importance of student wellbeing, schools are already putting measures in place to try and ensure their students have the best experience possible in their journey to higher education. Many of our own schools have signed up for our dedicated Wellbeing Manager, a solution designed to record and monitor student concerns, whilst some schools are introducing yoga and mindfulness classes for their staff and students.
However, with stagnating budgets and limited resources on offer to support, will this be enough to combat the impact of exams? And shouldn’t this severe influence on mental health be enough to encourage the re-evaluation of exams as a definitive style of assessment?
Why do we have exams?
Exams are an undeniably good way of quantitatively evaluating student outcomes. Testing more than just memory, they also seek to assess a student’s comprehension, application of learning and critical thinking – all skills they will go on to use in their professional careers. They will then be awarded a single grade for each subject to represent their combined abilities in the above areas, comparable to their classmates across the country.
However, is this singular mark really a fair reflection of the student’s knowledge? Many say that one of the key shortcomings of the exam-based assessment is that it’s only indicative of students’ knowledge at the time of the exam. With all the best intentions, late night cramming sessions and frantically flicking through cue cards outside the exam hall are activities that have become so ingrained into the revision process, they’re almost a rite of passage. But if there’s one thing we know from these last-minute attempts to absorb everything a student has learnt over the past year, it’s that this information is rarely retained beyond the end of the exam.
This suggests that a more staggered approach to assessments could be beneficial in building and monitoring students’ knowledge over time, as opposed to capturing evidence of what they know in an isolated moment in their school career.
Do exams really give students an equal chance?
Another theory lending itself to the exam culture in schools is that they provide students with an equal chance by objectively asking the same questions, for the same number of marks, regardless of set or ability. Although, it’s worth noting that exam structure varies dramatically from course to course, as does the marking criteria; for example, you have the “right or wrong” answers in subjects like Maths and essay-based responses required in subjects such as English and History. This makes it very difficult to accurately and fairly compare students of different disciplines across numerous courses.
However, it could be argued that this will be a potential challenge regardless of which assessment type you employ; for example, in presentation-based assessments not every student is a skilled public speaker and therefore some will perform better than others. In this instance, perhaps a more flexible approach to assessments is needed which accounts for students’ disciplinary strengths; this may also have a knock-on effect in terms of placating some of the anxiety students face surrounding exam performance.
The effect of the exam timetable
Another element of the UK’s current assessment structure that will inevitably impact student wellbeing, is that the exam timetable often means that every exam is scheduled over a concentrated period of two to three consecutive weeks. This means that all the pressure and anxiety students feel towards their final assessment is allowed to build throughout the academic year until it comes to a head at a single point towards the end of the school year.
Under periods of extreme stress, psychological studies have proven that performance dips below optimum level. A study conducted in British International Schools by ISC Research highlighted that 83% of teachers feel that exam stress can impact negatively on student outcomes in their exams. Not only is this indicative that students perhaps don’t always fulfil their full potential with the exam style assessment, but it also runs the risk of being detrimental to their health and wellbeing. This suggests that more evenly spreading exam times across the term or perhaps even having students sit fewer exams could be a way around this.
What about the impact on teachers?
We’ve spoken a lot so far about the effect of the exam season on students, but we also need to consider its impact on your teaching staff. It’s easy to underestimate the work involved in prepping hundreds of students for their exams each year and the new GCSE structure has only added to teachers’ already significant workloads.
Not only have teachers had to spend time grappling with another series of exam specifications and curriculum changes, but they’ve had to do all this in the midst of further budget cuts across the sector. This has resulted in fewer resources and revision materials to support your staff when they’re trying to teach students even more information within a restricted time period, often meaning that students are having to learn the syllabus right up to sitting the exam.
Perhaps more critically than this, whilst a student is in school their teachers become their primary carer in place of their parent/s or legal guardian. With the rise of exam-related mental health disorders, your teachers and members of staff will be facing even more pressure in providing proactive and preventative pastoral care for every student. Which once again leads us to question the sustainability of exams as the core method of assessment.
So… if not exams, what?
Traditionally, the written exam has been the favourite form of assessment for generations of students – so if we were to replace this, what would we do instead?
Based on what we’ve discussed above, it seems that the key to not only fairer assessments but also ones that will minimise the risks to student wellbeing, is striking a balance between both the style of the assessment and the time period over which it’s carried out.
Taking a more balanced approach in lessening the emphasis placed on the “exam season” as one fixed, relatively short period of time in the academic year, and spreading out assessments so exam pressure is less concentrated, would incentivise students to retain knowledge over longer periods of time and appease the “one chance to do well or fail” attitude that causes so much anxiety.
In terms of the assessment method itself, taking written-based exams has its benefits in the schooling system, but perhaps student outcomes would benefit from a combination of this with other methods, that would enhance students’ skill sets for later life and more fairly represent their subject strengths as opposed to their disciplinary strengths.
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