Government-Sponsored Agencies Dispense Harmful Advice

I was slightly bemused a few weeks ago when RTE invited well-known Dr. Harry Barry and Enda Murphy to offer advice on exam preparation, as the former is a GP and author, and the latter a therapist. Were no teachers available? Since then things have become clear. Exams are no longer an educational issue, they’re a health crisis, and preparation no longer means revising, it means getting your head in the right place so to speak.  Here are some examples of exam tips that have surfaced in the past fortnight. All of these organisations receive HSE funding.

“Exam stress can be overwhelming, while confusing and exhausting you”. (ReachOut)

“Extrenal pressures around exams can be huge. These can be hard to deal with”

“Here’s how to keep that stress to a minimum”(SpunOut)

“Stress can prevent you from doing your best. Learn a good relaxation technique and practice it well ahead of the exam so that it will come easy to you on the day. Get help from a counsellor if you need to.” (SpunOut)

“don’t set yourself crazy goals like “600 points or I’m not happy” or “Four As is what I want. If you set the standards very high, you’re putting yourself under massive stress. Look at the results you need for what you want to do and aim for this.”

“If exam results stress is getting you down, you can talk to your doctor, ask your doctor to refer you to a counsellor. Alternatively, you can contact the Irish Association for Counselling and Therapy or talk to Samaritans who provide confidential emotional support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair.” (SpunOut)

“The top issue for Leaving Cert students we see across the whole year is exam stress. And exam tensions impact not only on the student and parents but the whole family so it’s really important to try and keep the home place calm.”  Dr. Tony Bates

Find out which routine suits you the best – alone or with a friend or parent/carer; early morning or late at night; short, sharp bursts or longer sessions; with music or without noise.” (Mental Health Ireland via Dept of Education)

“Set realistic goals. Go out and do something different. Have a positive affirmation “I can do this”. Breathing exercises” (Jigsaw Donegal)

and my personal favourite…

“Knowing what kind of learner you are can help you study effectively. There are three main types of learning styles: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic” (Jigsaw Donegal)

Jigsaw’s next leaflet will move on from the three learning styles to the latest medical research that the body is made of four humours. This advice is not only silly and without any basis in educational research or practice, it is creating the very problem it claims to be tackling. As sociologist Frank Furedi wrote recently in The Independent “Advocacy groups intent on raising awareness about an epidemic of exam stress may well unintentionally contribute to its further intensification.”

If students followed the exam advice I’ve come across in recent weeks they’d be so busy going for long walks, meditating, doing breathing exercises under parental supervision, ensuring all meals contain complex carbohydrates, making wall-chart revision timetables, calling help-lines, seeing the doctor, seeing a counsellor, checking out inane infographics, and writing to do lists, that it’s no wonder so many of them are getting an early night, eating a nutritious breakfast (both no longer things we should all do every day but now “exam tips”), checking the timetable and arriving on time, only to panic when they realise “O fuck, I forgot to actually learn anything!!!!”

The Department of Education is colluding in this demonization of the Leaving Cert as detrimental to human health. Rather than writing their own tips for the exams run by the SEC they tweeted tips from an entirely different department. These tips included studying while listening to music, and highlighting. They have been quite open about the long-term plans to reform the Leaving, and are co-opting the exam-stress epidemic to their own ends. Now you can argue quite cogently against the Leaving Cert as a mode of assessment, or against the points system as a means of allocating places in third level education. You could look into the research and thinking around assessment. You could look at other countries’ models of third level entry. You could do some hard thinking around this issue, or you could go with the easy reason “Let’s get rid of the Leaving because it’s stressing out the kids and stress is bad for them.”

The government’s commitment to the stress-justification for assessment reform is seen by their commissioning of the ESRI to write a report “Your Whole Life Depends on It: Academic Stress and High-Stakes Testing in Ireland”. See what they did there? High-stakes testing causes stress and stress is bad so high stakes testing is bad. The stakes are so high that teenagers in Ireland are executed if they get under 550 points, that’s why “your whole life depends on it”.

In the study 6th year students were asked to what extent they agree with statements such as “I feel I’m not playing a part in useful things”, “I’m constantly under strain” and “I feel incapable of making decisions”. The Leaving Cert’s awful, isn’t it? Young people “under strain”? We can’t have it. 6th years focusing on their studies instead of community painting projects and coaching the under-5s? This can’t go on, we need some other fluffy form of assessment, ideally a Nordic-antipodean hybrid.

The authors say that “stress is contagious among particular groups of (often high-performing) girls”. The author use a clever metaphor with “contagious”, implying very clearly that stress is a pathogen. They also miss the blindingly obvious in their observation. These groups of stressed-out girls are the ones who go on to perform well. How can this be if they’re debilitated with anxiety and possibly failing to do breathing exercises before every exam?

Part of the answer may lie in a new book by Stanford psychologist, Kelly McGonigal “The Upside of Stress”. McGonigal defines stress as something “that arises when something you care about is at stake”. So we shouldn’t be surprised that students who work hard and are aiming high will report higher stress levels than those who have already conceded that they won’t do well. (And I’m suspicious of the ESRI’s sudden concern for female 6th years when we’ve been told along that the students we need to worry about are those 2nd-year boys Ruairi Quinn used to describe as “in the departure lounge”).

McGonigal cites several studies that contradict the advice that students need to reduce stress levels, whether that’s in order to maximise performance or to protect their well-being. One is from the University of Zurich which found that when it comes to exams “those with the strongest desire to avoid stress were the most likely to report declines in concentration, physical energy and self-control”. McGonigal has spoken elsewhere that “if we try to control our inner experiences it almost always backfires. It tends to strengthen those experiences and we feel even more self-doubt and more stressed and more anxious…we get pulled away from the energy we need to simply take action in the direction of our goals”. This is extremely applicable to the run-up to exams when students would be better advised to concentrate on the task at hand than on monitoring and attempting to control their stress levels.

The idea that a little bit of exam pressure is good for you but when it comes to the crunch you need to get your nerves under control, stems from the myth of the elite athlete struggling to focus and avoid choking. But, as McGonigal writes “Contrary to what many people might expect, top performers aren’t physiologically calm under pressure; rather they have strong challenge responses. The stress response gives them access to their mental and physical resources, and the released confidence, enhanced concentration, and peak performance.” It is this “challenge-response”, not a relaxed “exams-don’t-define-me-and-there’s-an-alternative-path-into-every-career” attitude, that we should hope to see in the final lead-up.

Tips on How to Mange your Exam Stress are not just a useless distraction, they may actually be harmful. In the short term fear of stress can impede performance. “The Upside of Stress” features another psychologist Jeremy Jamieson who gave the following pre-exam pep-talk to a group of college students

“People think that feeling anxious when taking a standardised test will make them do poorly. However, recent research suggests that stress doesn’t hurt performance. People who feel anxious before a test might actually do better, This means that you shouldn’t feel concerned if you do feel anxious while taking today’s test. If you find yourself feeling anxious, simply remind yourself that your stress could be helping you do well”

Even though the group who received the talk showed higher levels of stress bio-markers, they outperformed the control group both in this test, which was a mock, and in the real thing.

One thing I and the Cassandras of exam-stress doom agree on is that exams are not the be-all-and-end-all and that there is more to life. And it is when it comes to life in general that the real damage of the take-it-easy, stress-is-toxic advice is done. For many students, the State exams represent the first serious, stressful event of their lives. (Others, of course will already have met with serious challenges often unfortunately beyond their young coping levels.) What effect is the never-ending stream of media commentary having on their view of this challenge? What does it say that mental-health organisations choose this important time in their lives to bombard them with “tips” on how to reduce their levels of stress? I think the effect is that challenge is bad, and that the government and their schools have little care for their welfare that they put them through such an ordeal. I think the targeting of exam-students by mental-health organisations is venal and irresponsible.  As Frank Furedi writes in the same article quoted above: “Many children do suffer from mental health problems and we should do our best to provide good quality care to deal with their conditions. We should also remember that the constant imperative to medicalise exam anxiety serves to trivialise the experience of those suffering from mental illness.”

Giving students the idea that stress is a sign something is going wrong, and that they need to learn to control their anxiety as a prerequisite to success, sets students on a path of fear and limitation. It is interesting that the ESRI report concludes that girls themselves report the negative effects that stress is having on them; they have been conditioned to think of themselves as inadequate to challenge and to psychologically intense situations. What if instead we acknowledged their stress but saw it as a positive sign of commitment and ambition? McGonigal proposes “Rather than being a sign that something is wrong with your life, feeing stressed can be a barometer for how engaged you are in activities and relationships that are personally meaningful.”

In life the stakes are often high, the task daunting and the resources limited. But is only by chasing meaning –  and not safety –  that our students will achieve their goals and contribute to society.

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