It's exam season, with teenagers across the country revising for their GCSEs or A-levels.
And that means a lot of youngsters will have heightened stress levels. So what can parents do to help their children during this time?
Online tutoring platform, MyTutor, has put together some advice on what you can do to help. Prof Barbara Oakley, educator and expert on teen learning, has shared her insights on top ways to support your overwhelmed teen preparing for their exams.
1. Encourage your teen to work ‘retrieval practices’ like flashcards into their study routine
The best way for teens to learn a new topic is through retrieval practise. "When you’re first learning something, there’s faint links forming between neurons in their brain," Prof Oakley explains. "The more you retrieve that learning – the stronger the links become."
2. Have them look over key learning areas before bed
The brain is hard at work even when we’re sleeping. Prof Oakley told MyTutor that during sleep "neurons are connecting". So, telling your teen to glance over their notes right before bed for two-five minutes, helps consolidate their learning. So, when your teen is sleeping, by building "neural connections", their brain will actually work to keep this new information in their memory. Who knew sleeping could double as revising?
3. Breaks are important for learning
Like sleep, breaks are important in making learning stick. Prof Oakley explained that short study breaks are vital for the part of the brain that stores new information. She says the best way to organise study time is by using the Pomodoro technique. It’s really simple: you turn off all distractions, set a timer for 25 minutes of focused study, and have a five minute break once the timer goes off. That makes one Pomodoro round. Prof Oakley recommends doing three over the course of a study session.
She says it’s key for teens to avoid any focused activity in their break time – and that means they shouldn’t go on their phones where distractions might pop up. Staring into space or petting the cat are both a good use of break time. Having a snack and stretching works too.
4. Spacing out learning is better than cramming for hours
This might seem obvious, but we’ve all heard of someone we know who’s pulled an all-nighter: "Learning takes time," Prof Oakley says, "just like a weightlifter developing their muscle, it takes time to build neural structure."
Your teen needs time to learn from direct instruction (so from their notes, textbooks, teachers), and then they need to go back over what they’ve just learned. Ideally, all the way up to exams, they’d repeat this cycle: study from classroom learning, retrieval practice, study from classroom learning, retrieval practice, and so on…
5. Encourage them to study in different places
Studying in different places can help refresh your teen’s brain and boost their memory. So, if they normally study in their room, try giving them the option to set up shop in the kitchen, a quiet corner of the house, a library or even a cafe (if they don’t get distracted). They could try making mind maps in a noisier space, and keep the library for past paper practice. Having different places to travel to can also help motivate them too.
6. Slow learners can learn more deeply
There are two kinds of learners: declarative learners – or as Prof Oakley likes to call them – "race car learners" and there are procedural or "hiker learners". Declarative learners pick up things quickly, but they might be less flexible. Procedural learners take longer and are often more accurate.
Both fast and slow learners are just as good – one is not better than the other. But often in schools, fast learning is rewarded. If your teen’s stuck on their maths homework, encourage them to take time to work it out. That’s where home learning can be so valuable – it’s where your teen can learn at their own pace, and go over things as many times as they need to until they get it.
7. Starting off with rewards for learning isn’t as bad as once thought
Prof Oakley explained to MyTutor how her daughter was not a big reader in school. To encourage her along, she would give her little rewards every time she finished reading a book. Over time, it was easier for her daughter to read and get into a book. "She eventually became internally motivated," Prof Oakley says. This is a perfect example of how starting with small rewards – like pocket money or a treat on the weekend (to get things going) – can help them get over their fear of difficult subjects and become more self-motivated in the long run.
8. Calm exam stress with breathing exercises
As we all know, exams can bring on stress. Prof Oakley shared a useful tip for teens to use if they feel panicked when they’re revising or during an exam. It’s called "box breathing". She recommends teens to try breathing in for five seconds, holding for five seconds, and breathing out for five seconds.
She explains: "When you get very nervous you do shallow, panicked breathing. It doesn’t give you the oxygen you need." Practising this deep breathing technique a few days or even weeks before exams – so that it seems normal – will help your teen relax. If they feel panicked in the exam hall, using this technique can help them refocus and remember what they’ve revised too.
9. Help your teen reach out for support
There are times when they just need a helping hand from an expert. Whether that’s with a tutor (if their anxiety comes from learning gaps) or with a healthcare professional – there are people and organisations here to help teens. Here are a few good resources to tap into, as recommended by the NHS:
- Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS)
- Kooth which delivers psychological support for teens
- Mental health apps: Catch It, Blueice, Chill Panda