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Studying for exams can challenge mental health - what young people, parents and teachers say ....

2 November 2020

Student Study Support

February 2020


This work is the first stage of a process undertaken by a large secondary school to maximise support for students in their studies and preparations to sit national examinations and to strengthen links with parents and carers to facilitate the process.   Planned feedback to parents, students and staff in March /April 2020 has been put on hold as a result of the Covid19 pandemic.  However, it is to be hoped that implementation of the findings can be helpful in supporting young people in the current uncertain times.

The findings should be of interest to all who took time to contribute to the survey earlier this year and who were promised feedback and to those who work with young people.

The purpose of this exercise was;

  • to find out from parents, senior pupils and staff if the study / exam support within the school was working effectively, 
  •  to consider strategies / ideas highlighted in the response to the survey to minimise pupil’s anxiety and to fully support them during exam time,
  • to give feedback to parents to enable them to work with the school to further support their child’s studies and preparation for national exams since for many pupils and parents, this might be the first time they will have experienced a system which doesn’t offer a chance to ‘re-sit’ until much later,
  •  to relay feedback to pupils and staff through school management systems.


Staff were asked four questions relating to student study support, their observations on pupil behaviours and their suggestions, if any, to enhance the current system. All staff who responded confirmed that they had observed signs of anxiety and stress which they attributed to studying and preparing for exams.   The signs of anxiety included; tears, panic attacks, poor sleeping patterns, exhaustion, low self-esteem, lack of concentration, stress resulting from a pressure to perform well 

and poor organisational skills.   While all pupils might not exhibit all of these behaviours there appears to be agreement that this is a significant issue for many and is debilitating for some.

Staff highlighted a variety of study supports available in school to help pupils’ study and prepare for examinations and most were aware of supported study sessions held after school and during lunchtime.  It was noted that individual staff give pupils advice and some resources and study materials are available on-line, however, a policy for providing support and advice on issues such as how to revise, coping with stress and anxiety would be beneficial.

Suggestions made to enhance existing support included more whole school preparation in S3 to ensure that pupils were adequately prepared for what would be expected from them in S4/5/6; having dedicated PSE periods to consider practical coping strategies, organisational skills and time management; and    maintaining a healthy balance between study, family and friends.  


Parents were asked, in the first instance, if they felt confident in the supports their child had in order to prepare for studies and examinations.  Almost 64% of the respondents felt that their child was adequately supported while 36% did not.   

When asked about eating habits, getting regular exercise and sleep, 80% of parents were confident that their child ate regularly and had a reasonable diet; 67% felt their child got sufficient sleep and 60% considered that their child exercised regularly.  While 70% felt that their child had someone to talk to if they felt worried and had time to spend with friends, finding it easy to organise his /her studies and being able to practice relaxation were less evident.   

Almost 80% of parents indicated that they would welcome additional support from school to help them manage their child’s exam preparation and spent time giving their views and suggestions to enhance existing practice.   Some of the central themes mirrored those mentioned in the staff survey e.g. signs of stress / anxiety relating to exams – poor eating habits, not enough relaxation, and poor sleeping patterns.   For some, there was a feeling that there was too much pressure from schools to study and it was important to get ‘the balance right’.    Many requested further guidance on how to study, helping pupils develop organisational skills; how to write a study schedule and ‘stick to it’.  

 Suggestions included:

  • Realistic exam study / preparation
  • Using technology – live chats / advice during study leave
  • Advice to parents on what topics pupils should focus on
  • More study groups during the school day for those who can’t manage after school groups
  • After school support; study sessions
  • Study group of 3 or 4 out-with school
  • Better use of ‘Show my Homework’ to enable parents to help
  • A school policy on running study groups
  • Option of Skype / Facetime for parents who cannot attend Parents Night
  • More support for ASN – needs to be communicated to all staff
  • Help with writing personal statements
  • A review of timing of prelims

Overall, there was a strong willingness from parents to engage more with the school and an acknowledgement that parents would appreciate additional help in supporting their children to achieve as much as they can while minimising the additional anxiety and stress which all respondents feel is related to studying and preparing to sit examinations.


Pupils were asked about the extent of anxiety they felt, if any, which was related to school / studies / exam preparation.  Only 16% considered that they never or rarely felt anxious about studying or preparing for examinations.  While, 37.21% said they always felt anxious; 27.91% usually and 18.60% sometimes.  This would appear to indicate that stress and anxiety related to studying and exam preparation is a major issue for the pupils who responded to the survey.  

Question 2 focused on the physical and mental wellbeing of the pupils and it was interesting to note that there were some differences between the general perception of parents when asked similar questions – e.g. Do you ….  (parents answers in brackets)

  • get enough sleep                      54.76%                         (66%)
  • exercise regularly                     42.86%                         (59%)
  • practice relaxation                    16.67%                         (27%)
  • importance food/drink               50%                              (80%)
  • have someone to talk to            64.29%                         (70%)
  • have time with friends               69.05%                         (51%)
  • find it easy to organise studies  35.79%                         (43%)
  • find places to study                    23.81%
  • have access to computers/        90.48%

From this initial response it would suggest that areas to consider addressing would be study skills, relaxation, health & wellbeing.  90% of pupils do have access to computers and printers however almost 25% find it difficult to find places to study.

The majority of pupils would welcome support from school (77%) and home (44%).  36% indicated that they would welcome support from friends.  When asked what sort of support would be most helpful to them much of the responses centred on a desire to understand the exam process: -

  • some sort of study support service
  • afterschool study support
  • more attention form teachers – for everyone – not just those who misbehave
  • teachers to help me understand the exam process
  • help with topics
  • study plans and how to organise studies
  • tips and lessons on how to organise time
  • past papers and have them marked to see how we do and how we should write exam style answers
  • morale
  • transport to get home after school to attend after school classes – I’m hungry at lunchtime and not taking anything in.


Additional comments highlighted the ‘extreme’ stress and anxiety that is related to preparing for and sitting exams.  Study plans / skills/ support; ways to manage stress.  It is noted that much of the stress and anxiety associated with exams could be reduced considerably if pupils felt more in control of how to manage their studies, how to answer questions and normalising much of emotions pupils say they are feeling.