For parents of secondary students it is getting close to….


 By now your children will be seriously into their study, and will be starting to wind up for their first exam. If they haven’t started serious study yet then either they are so brilliant that they can retain information perfectly after having heard it only once and consequently don’t need to study, or they are procrastinating or they just don’t care. If the first reason, then that can be problematic because schools have a nasty habit of raising the standard expected with every passing year and at some point they will need to learn how to study, so practice now would be an advantage anyway. If it is the second then some of the things here in this blog will help and if it is the third then that’s OK, someone has to fail, we can’t have everyone passing can we? And as we all know we learn a lot more from our failures than from our successes anyway. Right?

If your children are well through their revision – going over all the material that they could be examined on, summarising the important stuff as shown on our courses – then as they get closer to the actual exam date the best thing they can do is to work through old exam questions. The questions from old NCEA, IGCSE, GCSE and IB Diploma papers are available on on-line – just google them. The student needs to first read the question, highlight the verbs (what the examiner actually wants them to do), and map out a framework of an answer making sure the structure of the answer correctly mirrors the requirements of the question. Then the student needs to write a full answer without reference to notes in a time frame similar to a real exam situation and then check their answer with their notes. This practice gets them used to the type of questions examiners ask and helps them to organise their thoughts in an appropriate manner. Also your children need to realise that examiners are sometimes not terribly imaginative about writing new exam questions and practice writing answers to old exam questions can somethimes pay off very well.


This is a copy of the last page from the workbook that your son or daughter received from us on the Exam Confidence course. If they still have the workbook it would be good for them to read over these points before their first exam, if not they are printed here:

Exam Techniques – What to do in the Examination Room

1)     First skim through the whole paper and highlight the instructions
eg. do all of Section A
and 2 out of 5 in Section B
then 4 out of 7 in Section C
this should keep you from making simple mistakes and also gives your unconscious mind time to draw together the necessary material for later questions while you are doing the first ones

2)     Second – allocate your time
If you have 2 hours for a 100 mark paper that’s
120 mins for 100 marks
1.2 mins per mark
so a 5 mark question should take 6 minutes
a 10 mark question should take 12 minutes
Write on the exam paper the time you should spend on each question and most importantly stick to time!
Remember that the first half of the marks for any question are the easiest ones to get, so make sure you get all the easy marks, first.

3)     If you are able to, leave a generous space after each answer – this makes your paper easier to mark and gives you room to add in extra information at the end if you have spare time

4)     Start with the easiest questions – to get your brain going and your confidence up

5)     Read each question carefully and highlight the verb – what the examiner wants eg. there is a great deal of difference between
list, compare, discuss and describe

6)     Use THOrTmaps as planners for long answers and include them at the beginning of your answer – examiners will give you marks for showing your planning for an essay answer as well as the answer itself.

7)     If you run out of time
–          for maths type exams – explain what you would do to solve the problem without actually doing it – in maths exams over half the marks are for the process, less than half are for getting the right answer
–          for English-type exams – give a list of key points or a THOrTmap but don’t write the essay

8)     If you have spare time (which you will if you stick to time) – STAY PUT and RELAX. Never leave early. Once you have relaxed you will probably remember extra things you could add in to your answers so go back and add to them in the spaces left. Don’t change any answers unless you are absolutely, 100% sure you got it wrong the first time – first thoughts are usually right.


Obviously in your family you place a high value on education and you are willing to invest good money in the process of education because ……???

Because you wish your son or daughter to get the best possible exam results to enable them to qualify to go on to the best possible university to get the best possible degree to give them an advantage in the employment market to get the best job which pays the best rate and gives them a satisfying life with all their needs taken care of….????

Unfortunately there is no good evidence to show that graduates from the best universities earn more money, have more interesting jobs, more job satisfaction, more influence, more power, or more happiness than other graduates and there is good evidence to the contrary:
–      a 1999 study from Princeton of the previous 20 years of graduate placement showed that graduate of prestigious ivy-league colleges (universities) did not end up earning more than graduates of other colleges
–      by 2005 the percentage of CEOs of S&P 500 companies who did not graduate from an ivy-league school had risen to 90% from 84% in 1998.

Of course things may be different where you live but in general the professional labour market these days is totally performance driven and good connections or a good school count for very little.

So maybe the real reason to have your son or daughter at a good school is for the exposure to a high quality teaching and learning environment which will enable them to maximise their abilities, develop all aspects of their intelligence and have the intrinsic advantages of higher level learning and deeper understandings? Then in a performance driven working environment they can excel by virtue of their intellectual efficacy – the combination of their knowledge and skills, the talents they have developed, their attitude and their ability to learn and problem solve well.

And as parents we do our best to help with this process by making sure our children are exposed to as many and as varied learning experiences as possible – the extra-curricular ballet classes, gym lessons, swimming lessons, horse riding, karate classes, piano lessons, drama classes, singing lessons, debating societies, chess clubs, not to mention extension or catch up maths, English and other language classes etc. etc. – and making sure they understand that pushing themselves to maximum effort in all that they do will help them develop the mental toughness needed to succeed in this competitive world.

Unfortunately much of this relentless over-achievement is simply turning into stress for our children and particularly for our daughters.

Data from the United Kingdom shows that in 1987 the academic results for boys and girls sitting GCSE were very much the same, but by 1999 there was a 10% performance gap in GCSE results with the girls doing better. And in two studies of 5000 15 year olds across the same time period the rates of anxiety and depression for girls (from high income households) increased from 24% in 1987 to 38% in 1999. Interestingly enough there was no significant increase in problems amongst boys (or amongst girls from low income households) but for privileged girls the rates of hospitalisation for distress tripled – from 6-18%. In 1999 a multi-country study of stress showed that English 15 year old high-income girls were the most stressed by exams in the world (for ages 11 and 13 English girls were in second place, after the USA).

These results seem to correlate with studies of resilience where boys tend to show a significantly higher level of discouragement and hopeless feeling in the early years of high school than as seniors whereas girls show a significant decrease in the self-regard and self-confidence throughout their school development, and levels of perfectionism, hopelessness and discouragement are found to rise in girls from junior to senior high school years. Researchers have found what appears to be an outbreak of perfectionism amongst high-income daughters, as one such girl stated: “Girls try to have it all: be really, really clever, have a great social life with lots of friends and be really pretty and thin. What leads to high stress is juggling all of them.” This kind of self imposed pressure sometimes leads to unhealthy perfectionism. This kind of perfectionist feels that her best is never good enough, she sets impossibly high standards, has an intense fear of failure and is plagued by self doubt. Perfectionism, academic success and eating disorders very often go together – in a sample of women from one Oxford University college, over one-third had suffered an eating disorder at some point in their life and 10% had one currently.

What this all comes down to is the value we in our households put on the outcomes of academic performance. It is clear from the research that parents who make their positive regard for a child dependent on performance outcomes will produce children whose self worth is inextricably linked to academic scores and who consequently are much more likely to feel anxious, stressed, distressed and helpless.

The opposite state of mind to helplessness is resilience.



Resilience is:
1) Efficacy – self belief – a young persons belief in whether achieving a certain goal or completing a certain task is achievable for them, plus

2) Agency – the skills, techniques and strategies the young person needs in order to achieve the goal or complete the task, plus

3) Action – the impetus to take action, observe the result, make strategy or process corrections, and have another go – the technique of learning from mistakes and overcoming the fear of failure

To help with this we as parents can:

1)     Help our children get an objective perspective of their own situation – the big picture. If they do well in these exams then many options are opened up for them but if they don’t do well in these exams then all that changes is that the options that are opened up are different, not necessarily worse just different. As every successful person knows suffering and hardship are essential parts of success in any field and as one door closes another always opens. They need to be encouraged to follow the path that most fascinates them, that they are willing to put a lot of energy and effort into. Education is not a race – it is not the first to finish who wins, education is a process not an outcome.

2)      Make sure they have all the right process skills to deal effectively with all the challenges that lie ahead of them in the next few weeks – timetable, good notes, resources, study guides, an understanding of what will be in the exam, support, extra tutoring where they need it, good summarising technique, access to past exam papers, access to teachers etc.

3)     Listen to the language they use about study and school and the subjects they are doing. Helpless attributions for difficulties are all about – “its someone else’s fault”, “there’s nothing I can do” , “it’s too late anyway”, “I can’t do it”, “I just don’t understand it”, “there’s no point”, there’s too much to do”, “the teacher was useless” etc etc. Encourage them to learn to take action to solve problems – offer whatever support they need to solve the problem, help them to manage their time, create an atmosphere where they feel encouraged to ask for help. Help them to notice and take control of their own internal dialogue – encourage a shift from “I can’t” to “I haven’t yet”. Encourage “what can I do about this?” type of language.

4)     Encourage them to objectively analyse what strategies they have used before in similar situations and how effective they were. Get them to acknowledge their own mistakes and difficulties and to make plans to prevent similar situations arising this time eg. leaving study to the last minute and then panicking and feeling overwhelmed – accurate timetabling and attention to time management; feeling stressed and alone in their study – studying with like minded friends.

BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY – provide total support but back off the pressure. Link positive regard to who they are not to what they produce. Accept your children exactly as they are. They do not need changing. They are you – and you turned out OK in the end – didn’t you?

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