Students' stress levels show it's time for a debate on senior cycle exams
It's the time of year when the focus turns to the students preparing for the Leaving Certificate. Our new research shows high levels of stress among such students, particularly girls. They feel stressed trying to keep up with schoolwork and reduce their social activities to spend more time studying.
Students also feel that teachers put extra pressure on them by constantly emphasising the importance of the exams. The biggest source of stress was the 'all or nothing' nature of the exam, with their results determining entry to higher education and access to employment.
Although a certain amount of stress is common among sixth years, we find that schools can play a major role in reducing it. Teachers have a crucial influence: students who receive more support and positive feedback from teachers have lower stress levels. Relationships with peers also make a difference - those with more negative peer relations, particularly those who have been bullied, are at much higher risk.
Although students appear to cut back on social activities or sports in the lead-up to the exams, we find that those who continue to play in-school sports have lower stress levels.
Students taking the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA), which combines exams with coursework assessment, have much lower stress levels than their peers taking the traditional exams.
Highlighting the importance of guidance, students who were dissatisfied with their subject choices reported higher stress levels. Students who feel unable to cope with their schoolwork are more likely to feel under strain.
Uncertainty about the future is another factor: students are not only preparing for the exams but are also submitting CAO applications. Those who reported that it was 'too early to decide on a future career' had higher stress levels.
Students also have real fears about not getting enough points for a particular course, or not choosing the right course.
Schools can clearly play a role in reducing stress through positive teacher-student interaction, reducing bullying, encouraging sports participation in exam years and providing guidance around subject choice.
Perhaps it's time for a debate about how we assess students at senior cycle and the impact of such a high stakes exam on young people's well-being.