Podcast - Helping students manage anxiety in 2021 and beyond

Helping students manage anxiety in 2021 and beyond

25 Mar 2021 (28:01)

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Summer 2021 looks a lot different for students compared to ‘normal’ years. Many will be feeling a mixture of emotions, including feelings of stress and anxiety around how their grades will be awarded this summer and how this will impact their future. Professor David Putwain has a PhD in stress and anxiety, and he offers practical tips on how to reduce and manage anxiety that will be useful for students, parents and their teachers, this year and beyond.

In the latest episode of our podcast, Professor David Putwain from Liverpool John Moores University joined Jill Duffy, Chief Executive of our UK exam board, OCR, to discuss the topic of managing and reducing student anxiety for students here in the UK, and those not sitting exams elsewhere in the world.

Podcast transcript

Alana Walden: [00:00:08.82] Hello and welcome to the Cambridge Assessment Podcast. My name is Alana Walden and I'm here to introduce our latest episode where we're thinking about the different concerns students might have this year and ways of managing anxiety. We're joined today by two guests, Jill Duffy, chief executive of our UK exam board, OCR, and Professor Dave Putwain from the School of Education at Liverpool John Moores University, who were able to offer some reassurance for students and their parents, as well as useful strategies for managing feelings of stress and anxiety.

Jill Duffy: [00:00:47.00] Hi, everyone, I'm Jill Duffy, chief executive of the OCR exam board, and I'm delighted today to be joined by Professor Dave Putwain from Liverpool John Moores University. And we're going to be talking about the topic of student anxiety, which is obviously key around this time of year. As we come into exam season, we're going to be providing lots of practical tips on how to reduce anxiety that will be useful both for students, parents and also their teachers.

Jill Duffy: [00:01:19.97] Dave, can you just sort of briefly summarise for us how students would normally be expected to be feeling at this time of year? So what's normal in normal times and what does the data show about this?

Professor Dave Putwain: [00:01:31.99] Ok, thanks, Jill. Well, it's a real mixture. Um, you have some students feeling confident about their forthcoming exams for the students. Less so. And again, for some students, GCSE, A-levels and BTECs are really important. And for other students, they're less so for all kinds of reasons. And as a consequence of these combinations of confidence and different reasons why exams might be treated as more or less important, students experience a real mix of emotions, too. And some of these emotions are positive, like hope and optimism, um, and others less so. And you'll have some students feeling hopeless and frustrated and so on. But what we do know is that quite a lot of students do become highly anxious about their exams. At GCSE, that's about 5 to 10 percent of males and about 15 to 20 percent of females. For A-levels, it's a little bit higher. It's about 15 percent of males and between 30 and 35 percent of females. So I think the important thing for me to emphasise is that there's an awful lot of variation between individual students.

Professor Dave Putwain: [00:02:38.69] But I'd be really interested to hear Jill. I mean, how did the OCR think about student anxiety when you're developing qualifications?

Jill Duffy: [00:02:47.24] Yeah, I mean, that's it's a very, very important issue for us. Um, you know, as an organisation, we're sort of conscious that we're supporting the education of thousands of young people. And that includes really being very concerned for their for young people's mental health and wellbeing. You know, as a parent myself, um, I've seen my two daughters through multiple exams series and, you know, particularly one of them who gets very anxious about exams. You know, I fully appreciate that, um, you know, exams can be a single they can be a cause of stress in a young person's world. Um, so what we want to do really is look at what's within our gift if you like to reduce anxiety and stress for students around qualifications generally, but also around their exams. And important thing that we do is listen to students and their voice throughout the development of qualification. So, for example, we currently have, um, a stakeholder group for a new GCSE in natural history or putting forward a proposal for that to, um, to the Department of Education. And on that group, we've made sure we've got student representatives from an organisation called Teach the Future, which is a student organisation, and they're contributing to what content they think should be covered and also what the assessment, what form the assessment should should be taken. And it's just crucially important that we have their views throughout the development.

Jill Duffy: [00:04:13.22] Um, you know, similarly, when we redevelop recently our GCSE in computer science, we got feedback from students on our assessment materials, i.e. the exam papers, the sample exam papers that would be, you know, very, very similar to the exam papers that they would see.

Jill Duffy: [00:04:29.24] So it's crucially important to us. And we also want to make the exam hall experience a positive one as we possibly can. Um, so our part in this, we feel, is to make question papers very clear, you know, accessible and also relevant to students. So at the moment, we're rolling out accessibility principles across all our exam papers, um, which could be things like using a clean font, using straightforward everyday language, but using familiar contexts and examples so that, you know, it feels very reassuring to the students when they sit down in that exam hall.

Jill Duffy: [00:05:06.83] That's in a normal year, obviously. Obviously, we're not we're not in a normal year this year. So maybe what I should do today is just go on to summarise what's different this year, how the arrangements have changed, and and then we can talk about, you know, what potential that might have for either, um, increasing or decreasing students anxiety this year. So if I go on just to say what's different this year, obviously, you know, we've got the Covid context and we know that at the moment, young people have an awful lot to worry about. We know for young people and their families, Covid brought a lot of anxiety. Many students have experienced loss or pain or illness in the family, and all students have been feeling more isolated, definitely from their friends. And we know from teachers that we've been talking to and teachers in our forums that students level of anxiety was very high at the beginning of the new year when lockdown was announced and exams were cancelled. And you might think that, you know, exams being cancelled will be, you know, a great source of relief for students. But we know that for a lot of students, that wasn't the case. And in fact, student, the student room did a did a survey and the majority of students would have preferred their exams to go ahead. Um. Obviously, now we've got we've got students going back into school and we think that will make many students happier, but it won't be comfortable for all students. And some students will be feeling anxious about going back into schools and everyone will need time to adjust.

Jill Duffy: [00:06:45.82] Um, so in terms of arrangements for this summer, obviously exams have been cancelled for the second year in a row. Teachers are responsible for awarding grades this year and they'll be basing these judgements on a collection of evidence. And as I say, we know this has had a mixed reaction from students. Some are happy that exams have been cancelled. Others are concerned if they're not certain about how their grades will be awarded this year and how they'll be able to progress, if you like, to the next stage of their learning. So what we've done to OCR is we came up with five, if you like, guiding principles for awarding grades this summer. And the first of these, the very first and the really important one is about recognising the safety and mental wellbeing of students and teachers and, you know, to other principals this year about supporting progression for students and ensuring results are as fair as possible. So students have been very much at the heart of our thinking at every turn. You know, we've been thinking about about the student, um, and what their experience is going to be like. And we know that one of the things that we can do, if you like to tackle that uncertainty of a summer 21, because we know that uncertainty can create anxiety is just to be very clear and very in our communications. We know students may feel anxious about arrangements this summer, but what we'll do is very much explain and be transparent, um, and provide communications for students.

Jill Duffy: [00:08:21.73] So, you know, we will want to communicate with them every step of the way via all the means that we have. So the student pages of our website, social media videos and via schools and colleges so that students are really, really clear what will happen this year. So just to run through, as I say, the teachers will be responsible for awarding grades, um, this this year and they will base that on a collection of evidence. Results days will be earlier this year. So results days are going to be on the 10th of August for students getting A-levels and Cambridge Technicals. And that means they'll have more time this year to sort out their university places. We know there's a lot of anxiety around university entrance at the moment, and we're going to be working very closely with universities in Newcastle to support that progression. We do that every year. But I think this will be incredibly important that we do this as well this year to make sure that that process of students progressing to their next step is easy and transparent as possible. So that's a bit of a summary, Dave, about what's going to happen this year. And it'd be useful to get your thoughts, I think, on, you know, how that might make students feel this year and what practical advice you would give to students and their parents from now, really, until I'm beyond results days this year.

Professor Dave Putwain: [00:09:55.46] Ok, thanks, Jill. I mean, it's incredibly helpful to hear that from your perspective, what's being done to. And it's also, from my perspective, quite reassuring as well, because I think students have got two main concerns. The first of which is fairness, whether they're going to receive a grade, which reflects their ability and effort. And it's certainly the case last year that quite a lot of students thought that wasn't the case. So the fact that you've built in fairness as to one of your guiding principles, I think it's a good thing. And the other main concern for students is how is it going to affect our future, which, again, you've already touched on. Will their grades be treated the same as universities and employers, the students from earlier years? There was a real concern from students last year that their grades wouldn't be given the same status. And I mean, I can't comment officially either on the university or the whole sector. But I'd say my impression is that universities are incredibly sympathetic to the situation that students are in. And that's partly because we're to some degree also in the same situation. You know, our student teaching and learning has been disrupted. Our assessments and our exams have also been disrupted as well. So we've been having to find alternate ways to grade students as well for our degree courses and so on. As far as universities are concerned, their grades will be treated with parity. The decision to cancel exams, um, this year was taken earlier than it was last year. And I think that's a good thing because it's allowed more time for planning, it's allowed more time for planning and how teachers are going to be expected to recommend grades and also what quality procedures schools have to put into place to ensure that those grades are fair and robust.

Professor Dave Putwain: [00:11:38.84] And there was a feeling last year that many students were left in the dark as to how this was going to happen and what was happening with their grades, feeling that nobody was getting in touch with their school to communicate and explain what was going on. And that really added to the uncertainty and anxiety experienced by students. And I'd really like to be clear that I'm not being critical of schools and teachers, you know, because last year they were having to get to grips with an awful lot of difficult circumstances. Very quickly, online learning, opening for vulnerable children and children of key workers. You know, they had an awful lot on their plate. But, you know, having said that, there are some things we can learn from last year. And, you know, you've mentioned the importance of communication, and that's absolutely key. So schools need to communicate to students and parents in a transparent manner how grades will be decided, what quality mechanisms are in place, you know, so that they can help build confidence that there is a good, robust and fair system, how school grades are going to be moderated as well, and also what the appeals process is. So I'm incredibly reassured to hear you emphasise the importance of communication as well. And it's important that schools keep that flow of information open.

Jill Duffy: [00:12:52.16] Yeah, I mean, maybe if I come in there and just say, because you've mentioned some really key things there, which I can, you know, give. Give a bit more detail on so I think you know that there'll be an awful lot. Well, we are we're working flat out actually at the moment on guidance that will be going out to schools by the end of March.

Jill Duffy: [00:13:15.44] So before the Easter holidays. So we'll will be very, very clear guidance, um, for teachers and for, you know, um, head teachers about how they how they should run in schools, what the internal quality assurance should be, and then what the external quality assurance will be, i.e., you know, what exam boards will do to make sure that, um, uh, you know, everyone's following consistent processes. One of the things that that will be in in that guidance, um, will be that, um, and we very much sort of advocated for this, that teachers make it clear to students, um, what evidence they're using to base their grades on. So although they won't be sharing, you know, that final grade with students before results day, they will there will be transparency about, um, you know, the work that the teachers are looking at, the evidence, if you like, that they're looking at to come up with that grade. So there will be transparency, um, around around that. And you've mentioned the appeals process. And just to sort of highlight there, um, again, we're going to be transparent about the process of appeals.

Jill Duffy: [00:14:29.86] But every student this year will have the right to appeal their grade if they wish. Um, and as I say, before a grade is submitted, teachers will be making students aware of the evidence that they've based their grade on. But if a student wishes to appeal, uh, uh, then they sent it will undertake an initial review to see if there's been a simple error. Um, if the student still wants to appeal after that, then the school, they can ask the school to submit a formal appeal to the exam board, um, so that there is, you know, a clear appeals process this year for students. And again, you know, we all want to be transparent about that, definitely to the schools, but also to students. So we're also thinking OCR, as well as providing all this guidance to schools that we can provide, if you like, guides for students and parents, that schools can then give out, uh, to students and parents. So we're being as clear as we can around how this will work this year.

Professor Dave Putwain: [00:15:32.53] Yeah. Um, yeah, good. I think schools could also schedule some times with students, so this could be done in, um, with a class or it could be done in a tutorial with a small group of students. I can't envisage many schools are doing whole year group assemblies at the moment, but if they are in a socially distanced fashion, it could be done in a whole year group assembly. And I think what schools and teachers need to do in those meetings is ensure that students know that their concerns about grading fairness and the future, along with any other concerns they have, are being listened to and acknowledged. You know, you've mentioned that there might be some students who are relieved and grateful for not having to take exams, but also other students who are going to be disappointed and even angry that they're not taking their exams. You know, one of the things that came through very clearly last year was the students felt they had been working towards their GCSE. You know, some of them were telling us they had been working towards it, felt like them for, you know, three or four years, not just over years, 10 and 11. And they'd been denied that opportunity to demonstrate their learning. And this is really quite distressing for some students. So it's really important for them to know that they're being listened to and that needs to be communicated to students in a respectful and sensitive fashion. And if schools are having to deal with a lot of anxious students, you know, there's lots of things that can be done at schools, do some of these things already because many schools now have a well programme. And, you know, these things can include yoga and mindfulness and exercise and so on.

Professor Dave Putwain: [00:17:09.76] Now, these kind of things are good for providing, um, you know, a temporary breather from stresses and worries. But they don't necessarily get to the root causes of anxiety. And, you know, sometimes a more focussed intervention can be of benefit for students whose anxiety is becoming overwhelming. Um, so the message I'd say to students is, you know, please remember that if you are feeling, you know, very worried and anxious about the grading situation this year, that you're not alone, actually, that an awful lot of people feeling the same way. And it's also important to remember that, you know, anxiety, although it feels like it's somewhat inevitable, is something that can be changed. You know, one of the characteristics of anxiety is it feels as if the anxiety is in control of you rather than you being control of the anxiety and even engaging in some. Simple, what's called diaphragmatic breathing, which is a rather technical name for you, sort of just deep breathing and following your breath right down to the bottom of your diaphragm and holding it and counting it out, you know, that can help provide some really quick and short term relief for anxiety. But importantly, it gives the person the sense that actually they're in control of the anxiety rather than anxiety being in control of you. But longer term, I think there's two things that, um, students can do, um, and one of which is approach learning and revision. If students are still having to do revision for many exams in schools this year in what's called a cycle of self regulated learning and self regulated learning is planning, doing and assessing.

Professor Dave Putwain: [00:18:49.52] And I think in my experience, students have generally very good about the planning bit of it, you know, making revision timetables and setting goals for revision and when they want to do revision and so on. And also generally very good at doing the revision. But I think not many students are as clear as to different ways they can use to revise and critically whether the method of revision they're using or learning they're using is effective or not.

Professor Dave Putwain: [00:19:16.22] So I think students and, you know, this could be done on their own or it could be done with friends, parents or teachers need to find out and about different ways of revising those visual techniques, auditory techniques, textual techniques. Um, and you can find about these different methods online and also in revision guides. And they need to try out some of these different methods. And what you'll find is that some students prefer some methods to others. Some students will find some methods are more effective than others. And you'll find that actually some subjects are suited more to some methods than others. And, you know, a day or two after trying this revision out, students need to assess their own learning. And, you know, they really need to be finding out for themselves, telling themselves, empowering themselves to find out if their revision method was successful or not. Need I quiz? They could tell what they've learnt to somebody else. They could try a practise exam question and so on. And if the revision was successful, great, you know, but if not, then you need the need to do one of two things. Either try that same method of revision again or try out a different method of revision or learning. And the other thing to do is keep periodically assessing that learning because it's a great way to strengthen memory actually through testing, testing yourself. And also it needs to let you know if you need to revise it again.

Professor Dave Putwain: [00:20:35.79] So taking this plan do assess approach really helps to build confidence in learning and actually a sense that you are in control of your learning. And it helps to build a sense that you are in control of the eventual grade that you're working towards. And because it helps to build confidence and because it helps to build control, that in itself reduces anxiety so that you can build in this way of learning and revising to help reduce anxiety.

Jill Duffy: [00:21:06.83] That sounds a really good idea, Dave. I mean, I just think in both my daughters, as you say, they all love doing the planning, but don't they? And, you know, going out, buying the highlighters, the Post-it notes, the revision plan is whatever it is and having this beautifully constructed Plan B, right.

Professor Dave Putwain: [00:21:22.49] That's not the main part. So I know you need to that it's working, don't you?

Jill Duffy: [00:21:27.59] Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Any other what other things do you think will be helpful for the students this year?

Professor Dave Putwain: [00:21:35.75] Sure. Well, the other thing that students can do is try and become aware of the negative or unrealistic thoughts are actually underpinning the anxiety, creating the anxiety. And, you know, these might not be very obvious at first because these kind of thoughts happened so fast. We're not aware of them. So the thing to do is when you're becoming worried or anxious is you need to try and pause and just spend a moment actually reflecting on what you're thinking at that particular moment or saying to yourself at that particular moment, sometimes this is called self talk. You know, it's literally that dialogue that you say to yourself with all voice running away in the back of the head, and it can be useful to recall things in a diary if you want. And what you find is that people who tend to become very anxious about their grades or anxious about exams is they'll be thinking in ways that are perfectionist, you know, maybe thinking, you know, if I don't get the highest grade in every single subject, I'm a failure. Or they might be thinking in catastrophic ways of the worst possible outcome. You know, if I don't get the highest grades, then my whole life will be a failure, um, or sometimes engaging, engaging what psychologists call mind reading, you know, thinking that they already know what others are going to think.

Professor Dave Putwain: [00:22:52.64] You know, if I don't get the highest grades, then, you know, my parents, you know, will negatively judge me and. What these thoughts do is that they magnify worry, they magnify fear, they put an awful lot of pressure on oneself. And, you know, it's these thoughts that are actually building and creating the anxiety when what you need to do is challenge them. And, you know, there's many ways to do this. So, you know, if people are thinking about, uh, perfectionist ways of thinking, then they can look at people who didn't get necessarily the highest grades in every single subject, but who want a failure and have been a success. Or, you know, if people are thinking and lots of catastrophic ways, then, you know, you can start looking at what alternative education or training groups there are. You know, how it's possible to retake exams. You know, and if people are really worried about what their parents might be thinking about their grades and it might take a bit of courage, but the best thing I can do is possibly to recommend ask your parents. Now, this this kind of approach of, you know, learning to identify what thoughts are going on and challenge them. It's not on it's not instantaneous.

Professor Dave Putwain: [00:24:05.53] It's a long term approach. And you need to keep challenging these negative thoughts. And gradually, over a period of time, they'll become less frequent and they'll influence you less. And that is the best long term strategy, along with the revision process I've just described, to help manage anxiety, reduce anxiety. I think the message for parents, I'd say is, you know, parents know their children very well and some students respond well to pressure actually, um, and others do not. And I think what's important is if your child is one of those who doesn't respond well to anxiety and those tend to become highly anxious around their grades, is, you know, please remember to tell them that they won't be judged negatively on their results and do discuss with, um, your children different options for the future and those which may and may not depend upon particular grades, you know, have a plan and a plan B, but also maybe a plan C two. And, you know, remember to schedule some fun stuff for them or encourage them to schedule fun stuff for themselves because, you know, everybody needs a breather from the, um, constant demands of exams and grades and so on at some point. So I think that that pretty much brings together, um.

Jill Duffy: [00:25:19.95] Everything I'd like to say, um, yeah, and I think just just on that, I think, you know, say thinking as a parent, I think that is something it is important for parents to do, isn't it, is to give that sort of long term view. You know, we all know that, you know, things that you might think are going to be really serious. Actually, life plays out in lots of different ways, doesn't it? And helping children have that perspective when they're coming up to exams. And, you know, these will not determine their lives. You know, other things will do that. I think providing that sort of parental perspective I think is really, really useful and something that all parents should think about, because as you've said, really, we can all play some part in this. Obviously, students have an awful lot they need to do themselves as an exam board. As I say, we do what we can to try and do our bit, if you like, to relieve stress and anxiety and parents have a massive part to play play in there. So so as do teachers as well. So we're all sort of in this, aren't we trying to, um, minimise levels of stress and anxiety for students?

Professor Dave Putwain: [00:26:35.47] I think actually, you know, the the thing that struck me most is I'm really reassured by your approach as an awarding body to how you're going to be managing the grading situation this year. And I think that will go a long way to alleviating some of the uncertainty that was present last year. So I think that's going to be really helpful.

Jill Duffy: [00:27:01.29] Thank you. And yeah, I mean, it's been great to have you here. We will carry on doing that. I think, you know, it's incredibly important for us that we put the students at the heart of our thinking, as I say, and, you know, we will do everything we can. But Dave, I just want to say massive, massive. Thank you. That has been I have learnt a lot as well. Um, uh, today it's been really useful hearing your you know, your thoughts on this and also your practical tips.

Professor Dave Putwain: [00:27:30.74] Thank you, Jill.

Alana Walden:

[00:27:33.01] And you can find more support for students and teachers in 2021 on the OCR website. Thank you for listening to the Cambridge Assessment Podcast. You can find all of our podcasts on our website, just search for podcast gallery. You can also find us on Apple Podcasts and YouTube.

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