Your children have all sat their ‘mock’ exams (I think that is a terrible name for an important set of exams because what does to mock mean? And we wonder why they don’t take them seriously?) and I set out in my last blog how to process those results. Now your children are moving inexorably closer to their greatest challenge of the year, their final exams. And of course they have got a mountain of coursework still to complete, they are tired and stressed after a hard year’s work, they are looking forward to getting away for their Summer holidays and yet we still want them to work harder than they every have – just for the next few months. A big ask.
How can we motivate them to want to work hard, to want to succeed? Well unfortunately we can’t. Only they can motivate themselves, we just have to arrange the conditions as much as we can to help facilitate the development of self-motivation. I see the steps to do this as follows:
1) purpose – if they don’t know why they are doing it they will find it much harder to complete. As I said in the ‘Back to School’ blog, help them focus on the intrinsic motivators – to find out what they are capable of, to gain the satisfaction of completion, of trying as hard as they can, of learning new things, becoming more competent, more capable, more intelligent, of having more choices in their lives
2) organisation – they must have a good clear study timetable which sets out exactly how much time they will spend in study each day right up to and through all the exams, and also what subjects they will study each day
3) resources – they must have good notes to work from, the right textbooks, the right study guides, people to ask questions of and extra tuition available if needed. Also what is very important is having access to old exam papers or individual exam questions in all subjects – these are sometimes available on-line or can be obtained from teachers or from the school library
4) environment – in the hours that they are studying in the weeks leading up to exams, all distractions must be eliminated, if this is a problem for your child you must intervene. Take away their TV, their internet connection, their i-pod and their phone. Just while they are studying, once they have finished their study for the night they can get all those things back. It’s OK. It’s not life threatening and they won’t hate you forever
5) study technique – that’s what we teach on our courses, so if your children have done our Exam Confidence course they will know how to study. It is mostly about treating learning as a discrete process requiring the right skills, lots of practice and the ability to learn from mistakes and constantly improve. Most studying involves reading notes, summarising main points in a way that help remembering and doing exam type exercises. As in point 3 access to old exam questions is critical, once a student has completed the information processing and summarising part for one topic, before they move onto the next topic, they need to try answering sample questions on that topic from old exam papers – but not under the same time constraints as they would find in an exam. This gives them important practice in writing exam answers – getting familiar with the format of questions, organising their material, building clear responses, writing quickly and accurately.
Your role in all this as I have said is to simply arrange conditions as best you can to enable self-motivation to occur. One key area is to engage your children in light discussions about how they are going, whether they are keeping up to schedule or not, asking for any ways that you can help, and watching for signs of pressure and stress. There is nothing wrong with pressure, we can all use pressure to our advantage to help overcome procrastination and when my children were studying for exams I certainly made sure I kept the pressure on. Not in a mean way but just by enquiring as to how much study they were planning on doing tonight, when they were planning on starting, what they were hoping to achieve, if I could bring them a hot drink and their mid-point etc.. It is when pressure turns into stress that I think we, as parents, need to intervene. I define the transition from pressure to stress as being characterised by negative self talk and the expectation of failure. So when your children are moaning about how much work they have to do and how hard it all is I think it is perfectly alright to fob them off with platitudes and aphorisms like “pressure makes diamonds” or “of course it is hard, if it was easy everyone would have one” but what we have to watch out for is when their language moves to expressions of how useless or dumb they feel, or how they expect to fail, or how bad the exams are going to be, or how their life is going to be ruined if they don’t pass etc. etc.. That is the time to intervene. Take them out for a coffee or a movie, get them a treat to eat, or just talk to them about the big picture. What happens, especially with teenagers but with all of us from time to time, is that we get stuck in the short term goals, the things we have to do right now in order to get over the next hurdle in order to meet the deadline, in order to satisfy some external pressure… and we sometimes forget the big picture. Take time to shift your children’s eyes up to the horizon from time to time. Help them to see that the next few weeks are not an eternity, they are merely an eye-blink in their whole life and it won’t be long until the exams are all over and they can have their summer holiday. Also I think it is important to help your children realise that the exams themselves are not significant, all they are, are opportunities to open up different choices. If they were to pass their exams they might have these choices open to them but if they were to fail it wouldn’t be the end of the world, they would just have a whole lot of different choices open to them.
I think we need to realistically talk to our children about the successes and the failures we have had, the choices we made and the consequences of those choices and about the real basis for success in our own lives. Which when I look back had nothing to do with exams as such it was mostly to do with good luck, being in the right place at the right time and having an attitude of being willing to take chances, willing to seize opportunities and take risks. But I am also a firm believer in the old saying that “the harder I work, the luckier I get”.
Lastly about rewards. Rewards are external motivators and as such don’t work too well, and the worst reward of all is money. But in saying that I can see no reason why we shouldn’t offer our children a reward for getting through their study successfully, but not a reward contingent on getting a certain pass or grade or mark. What we need to do is to make sure we are rewarding effort rather than outcome if we want our children to develop a resilient mindset –
a) programme the reward to occur the moment they finish their last exam – not when the results come out
b) don’t use money as the reward
c) make the reward a pleasurable shared opportunity like dinner out for herself and her friends, a holiday weekend, a concert etc
d) make the reward contingent on effort – no effort no reward, miserable effort miserly reward, huge effort great reward
e) effort can be measured simply as hours spent in focused concentrated study – see point 4 above
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