Two words: Final Exams!
Did I scare you?
These two words—FINAL EXAMS! — have been frightening our students, particularly our grade 12s, since our province (in my case, Ontario) announced the re-introduction of final examinations last September. The last time our current crop of Gr 12 students wrote final exams was in January 2019. At that point they were wrapping up their first semester of high school as Grade 9 students. Two months later, schools closed, students along with teachers were figuring out virtual learning, and final exams were abandoned. Fast forward to the post-pandemic Ministry of Education mandate: schools are to return to “normal” with writing final exams as a key part of the new normal.
Well, suffice it to say, our Grade 12 students have been struggling with this reality since the beginning of the semester. To say they are overwhelmed would be an understatement.
I am not going to write a piece on how to cope and balance exam stress with the say the same old strategies: make a calendar, find a quiet place to review, eat a balanced and nutritious diet, get an adequate amount of sleep, exercise, be mindful, practice breathing, etc. Not that all of that is not important. It most definitely is! But our students already know this. We have had four assemblies so far this year outlining the importance of these strategies to be a successful high school student. As a guidance department, we have offered our students calendars; we have taught them how to plan a day of studying with a focus on time management; we have done classroom visits to offer strategies and tips; we have had grade assemblies where our student success teacher, Connie Lopac, has talked about the exam dates, the layout of exams, how to use time effectively, healthy habits to practice while studying for exams. Then, the week before final exams, each department offered after school exam preparation and additional tutoring sessions. Our school community came together and did all of this (and more!) to help our students re-learn and prepare for how a semester of high school typically rolls out—including exam preparation and writing final exams.
However, our students were still stressed out. Their parents were still calling daily trying to understand why “we would do this to our grade 12s” asking “how can this be fair for a cohort of students who haven’t written an exam in three years.” Although I understand and empathize with the sentiments expressed by our parents, as it stands, our students, and all of the students in the school board I work for, wrote their semester one final exams.
And guess what? They all survived. They all figured it out (some more easily than others).
At the end of the day, sometimes we need to allow our children to feel the stress and anxiety that comes with final assessments, be it a test, exam, university program interview and/or audition. As parents, teachers, and counsellors we need to help them understand that they will survive, and stress in this format is quite common. Sometimes as parents, when we are anxious, our children feel that anxiety and absorb it. This in turn increases their anxiety. Granted, exams are worth being nervous about. However, with adequate preparation, we all get through these stressful moments in life. So, yes, our students experienced a lot of exam stress and, yes, guidance counsellors took many, many phone calls from very concerned parents and had many appointments with nervous students, but all of their children succeeded in completing a full complement of grade 12 high school courses. Now that they have written their semester one exams, they will be more ready to write their semester two exams. Fast forward to next year—when this cohort of grade 12s are in college and university—they will then be able to face those post-secondary assessment and evaluations, with more confidence thereby increasing their resiliency.
If parents, and the caring adult our students’ lives shift the focus off the stressful nature of exams and onto how to help students prepare, then our students will learn that this is a part of the learning process. This will improve our students’ overall experience as they come to recognize when and how they need to organize and study to get the best results they are capable of.
We need to give our children and students, in particular this grade 12 cohort that spent most of their secondary school experience with pandemic learning, the benefit of the doubt. They are much stronger, more capable, and more resilient than we, the adults in their lives, sometimes give them credit for. With our support (not our panic!) they will do well, not only when final exams come along, but when preparing for other life challenges. They survived a pandemic, continuing to learn and gain skills they need for their future. Let’s support them by helping them recognize their own capabilities; their strengths, their challenges and let’s help them build a reservoir of strategies, positive attitudes, and a belief system that will empower them to succeed and conquer any hurdle they encounter.
By: Anna Macri