The Leaving Certificate, a source of serious exam pressure! How can the Dept. of Education and the students themselves minimize stress levels?

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The weather is glorious and that lovely smell of freshly cut grass is in the air. It can only mean one thing….yes, it’s time for the Leaving Cert! Come Wednesday the 8th of June at half nine, approximately fifty thousand students will sit English Paper One. For many adults this brings back memories of studying, exam halls, getting results, going to College or whatever the case may be. But for me it brings back memories of severe anxiety, depression, OCD, social phobia and self harm! So it’s a time of year that I want to reach out to any students out there who are just overcome with the same anxiety I felt when I was in their shoes!

There is light at the end of the tunnel and for me I became a secondary school teacher, to go back to the scene of the crime…where my mental health issues all began. I wanted to be around students to help protect them from the same nightmare I went through. Of course, becoming a secondary school teacher in itself was a huge success to me. When I sat my leaving cert, I was in such a bad way I didn’t even get enough points to get into a nightclub never mind an Arts degree. But I got there in the end and I wouldn’t change my experience for the world. It turned out to be my biggest lesson in life and I want to share it with everyone!

So when I began teaching I soon realised that there are three types of students:

  1. Those who have worked so hard over the past two years and are really well prepared. They studied hard and took classes and homework seriously.
  2. Those who done enough work to do well. Could have done more but definitely made enough of an effort to reap a good result.
  3. Those who have yet to open a book. Class was usually a social event or naptime and some strange starving dog always ate homework!

Now the thing about exam stress and anxiety is that unlike us humans, it does not discriminate. So matter what bracket of student a teen will fall into they are susceptible to it. You could argue the teens in bracket 3 however, are probably not too bothered about the exams or the results. The reason why could be discussed all day long and believe me I do have lots to say on this too. But for now lets stick to the exam pressure.

Stepping into an eerily quiet and overly serious exam centre (no longer a class room) can be extremely overwhelming for anyone let alone a seventeen or eighteen year old. The result they get depends on how well they know everything they have learned in the past two years (or retained the information), and how well they answer a particular question on it. And for many students they intend to continue their education in College so they are working towards gaining a specific number of points. That alone is so stressful.

I’m glad to see that the stress of the whole points race is being taken into consideration at the moment and that the Department of Education has actually announced some major changes to the Leaving Certificate grading system and has also proposed changes to the points system for entry to higher level education. These changes will hopefully be in place for the 2017 set of students sitting their exams. There seems to be three major changes from what I can gather:

  1. A major reform in the grading of the marks. They are talking about getting rid of A1 A2 B1 B2 B3 etc and introducing a new Grade 1 to Grade 8. This is because there was always pressure to get that higher mark, the difference between a C1 and C2 could be 5 points and that could mean a lot when looking for a specific course. Studying becomes about the points, the marks, the marking scheme then and the interest in the actual subject is completely overlooked.
  2. Introducing points awarded to the 30 – 39% grade which will become H7. This will encourage students to stick to the higher paper.
  3. Colleges and University’s going to admit students to broader courses and this reduces the points plus broadens their opportunities and choices. WIT offers Bachelor of Arts 280 points, Business Degree 290.

Further reforms for 2018 are on the table also.

The above information is taken from an article in The Irish Time on the 30th of April 2016.

But the issue still remains; the Leaving Certificate is still a source of serious exam pressure, stress and anxiety for some students. And for the teens of today, I think we really need to be very aware of their mental health. We are dealing with such highly charged emotions, raging hormones, earlier onset of sexuality awareness and sexual relationships, easy access to drugs, parental separation and break-up of homes. So they have plenty going on without even thinking about the exams. For me, I didn’t really have anything going on in my life. I guess I just put a huge amount of pressure on myself to do well and I began to drown in that pressure!

Personally, I think that the Leaving Cert is a terrible way of assessing a student’s knowledge of a subject. I completely lost it while doing the Leaving Cert the first time round so I repeated it in Dublin. During that year I was actually the top student in my Geography class, I consistently got A1 in all my class exams and my homework was often made an example of to show the other students how to answer correctly. Yet when I sat the Geography paper I was so anxious I didn’t know what I was doing and completely messed up the paper altogether. I even came out missing a whole entire question. I think I got a low C when I know in my heart I was capable of an A. That was gut wrenching for me! If I had been tested over the course of the two years my grades would have reflected my ability. Where as the result I got only reflected the anxiety I felt on the day. Now there were classes I still wouldn’t have done great in even with continual assessment. For example, languages, I couldn’t get my head around them! Back then I thought that we were as students supposed to be brilliant at every subject. It never occurred to me till I left school that no we don’t have to be brilliant at everything. We have our strengths and we have our weaknesses. I didn’t have that linguistic brain so no matter how hard I tried I could never have achieved an A. And that’s ok! But of course back then I just stressed out over everything. To the point I was seriously suffering with my mental health. I remember testing myself with my German vocab with a razor blade. Every wrong word warranted a slash! How crazy is that? But the reality is, that’s what the pressure done to me at the time! Not every student feels the pressure to the same extent, but it’s definitely true that the exams bring stress and for many students that stress is overbearing.

We need to alleviate that stress as much as we can and I think there are a number of things that schools and the Dept. of Education can do to achieve this:

  • Sounds ridiculous but hire examiners that are student friendly and will actually smile at the students coming into the exam centre. How nice is it to have a reassuring face or a simple little smile when we are feeling nervous? All I can remember is seriousness, frowns and no smiles whatsoever. It was a cold environment and I felt so vulnerable.
  • Stop calling it a State exam; take the overwhelming feeling out of it. Just call it the leaving Cert. State exam makes it sound so over bearing.
  • Do what the gyms do…place some motivational quotes around the centre. In the gym they help us to keep going, not to give up. They could have the same effect in an exam centre. Even the act of looking and reading a quote for 30seconds could be enough to calm a students, bring them back to the here and now. Mindfulness at it’s simplest.
  • Schools need counselors in place in each and every school, a few even in the bigger schools! If we look at special accommodations, students are able to receive special accommodations for dyslexia for example or for a broken arm, so why not have the same for a student with exam stress or anxiety. If they feel they can’t cope, let them leave the paper go for a ten minute walk with that counsellor to calm themselves. Do some deep breathing exercises or whatever they need and then let them return to the paper with that time it took to calm down added back onto their time to continue the exam. If I had that option during my geography exam I probably would have done so much better! Yes, it would need to be for students who need it of course and not a free for all. So attention needs to be placed on how well or rather not so well the students are coping with the stress.
  • Have a safe place to dissect the exam. If a student is distraught over a paper, they can talk it through with a trained counselor and not just go home feeling terrible and then in turn causing deeper levels of anxiety.
  • Lastly, they need to be taught study skills in school! It’s mad, they are expected to study so much yet the vast majority are never actually shown how to study!!! The Dept. should make study skills a priority for the teachers so they can show the students how to actually study their subject.

Would all of the above cost money? Yes, of course. But think about the money that could be saved from less people needing medical assistance in the country!

What can students do to help themselves?

  • Stay calm! It’s not life or death. There is always a way into whatever it is you want to do after school. You’re young, you will work it out.
  • Stay calm and revise your work but avoid study binging the night before. You actually would be better off having a relaxing bath before bed!
  • Stay calm and get some sleep.
  • Stay calm and eat healthy! Avoid sugar spikes and downs. Stay away form energy drinks!!
  • Stay calm and move on! What’s done is done and it’s ok.
  • Oh and lastly….stay calm!

We need to let our young people know that their health is so much more important than any exam. Education is so important, but the Leaving Cert is not life or death! Everything will be ok. There are so many options out there these days. So…..just do your best and stay calm!

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