Handling Examination Stress


“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.”
– Leonard Bernstein


This is not a blog post about eliminating exam stress because that would be an unrealistic – and unhelpful – objective. As Bernstein wisely recognised, a certain amount of pressure (properly acknowledged and directed) can actually enhance rather than detract from performance.

Neither is it intended to provide ‘tips & tricks’ for more effective revision strategies; Cornell notes, cue cards and the like. In addition to the support that pupils at MCM receive in their academic lessons, there are countless excellent websites and revision guides that offer just this sort of valuable advice.

This is a post about maintaining pupils’ physical and mental health over the coming weeks when many of them will, inevitably, be under significant stresses and strains. It is a truism, but to perform well, we first have to be well. The advice below is intended to help parents guide pupils towards healthy and effective behaviours at this critical point in their school careers, and to nudge them away from temptations to work too late, ask too much of themselves, or lose sight of that vital work-life balance which sustains all our most productive efforts.

When first thinking about how to approach this piece, I asked pupils in my classes for their own advice on coping with exam stress. One of the most insightful responses that came back at me was, “Well, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” What followed was an impressively dexterous discussion on how far we could stretch that particular analogy…

Nobody trains for a marathon on their own. From casual runners to elite athletes, training partners and support teams are a vital part of anyone’s preparation. But many of the same benefits accrue when practising for exams. Sometimes it can be just the reassurance of another person sharing the same experience. At other times having someone to test your knowledge, hear your ideas and read your practice answers can be a vital tool which works to the mutual benefit of all involved. Most importantly, it is essential that pupils know help and support is there for them when – not if – they need it.

The right kit is essential. For athletes, this is trainers, gels and clothing. For pupils in the Upper Sixth and Hundred, the equivalent are their resources and their workspace. There is a valuable calm and reassurance that comes with the right set-up; quiet, clean, tidy and organised. If our aim is to reduce unnecessary stress and hassle, helping them create the right environment is one of the fastest ways to help.

It would be madness to train towards 26.2 miles on the streets of London or Tokyo ensconced on a treadmill inside a gym. Likewise, pupils should get outside as much as possible. We are blessed in Malaysia with a climate that allows us to savour our environment 365 days of the year. Enjoy it. Walk regularly. Clear your mind and breathe.

Athletes aim to peak for the big race; pupils need similarly to pace themselves. You don’t prepare for a marathon by running all night beforehand. Don’t cram. Sleep. It is better to be half-prepared and fully awake than the other way around.

Multitasking is a false economy. Mo Farah does not trawl Facebook as he runs in the Olympic final. Neither should our pupils think they can prepare for exams while checking social media or keeping one eye on Netflix. Encourage pupils to focus fully on the task in hand and avoid the stress and frustration which comes with inefficient use of their valuable time.

Marathon runners do not quit the occasional takeaway or bar of chocolate; pupils revising for exams should not stop seeing friends, playing sport and exercising. Variety and a sensible system for rewarding yourself are key to maintaining motivation and keeping stress at manageable levels.

The goal is progress, not perfection. We are – none of us – going to be the next athlete to break the two hour barrier in the marathon, but so what? Aim to be the best that you can be. We all have a role in helping pupils set aspirational, but attainable, goals and not place themselves under excessive and counterproductive levels of pressure.

We cannot all be Eliud Kipchoge, just like we cannot all be Stephen Hawking, Chloé Zhao or Jacinda Ardern. What we can do is remind our sons and daughters that exam success is only one – albeit important – aspect of their education and their experiences as a young adult. Life, just like exams, is a marathon not a sprint.


Thomas Jarrett | Teacher of History and Head of Politics

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