Friday 20 April 2018

Even Einstein failed exams. So, everything is relative

Teenagers can find themselves under a huge amount of stress in the run-up to the Junior and Leaving Certs
Teenagers can find themselves under a huge amount of stress in the run-up to the Junior and Leaving Certs
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

The mock Junior and Leaving Cert exams are already over in many schools. Over the past few weeks, thousands of pupils have had their first nerve-jangling experience of severe exam stress.

Butterflies in the stomach may benefit many candidates, but, in some cases, they are paralysed by anxiety, according to consultant psychiatrist Pat Devitt.

"Some candidates are frozen with anxiety like a rabbit caught in the headlights,'' says the psychiatrist, who offers advice on exam stress on the website

Even the brightest students can blow it on the day. Winston Churchill only managed to write his name when he was doing an entrance exam for Harrow School, while Albert Einstein failed his entrance exams for a polytechnic.

A debilitating exam fever is not just an issue for school pupils contemplating public exams for the first time.

Recent research released by the Samaritans suggests that exam stress and the pressure to achieve high marks were one of the biggest causes of worry for young people in Ireland.

Some 52pc of Irish young people, aged between 18 and 24, listed exam stress and the pressure to achieve high marks as one of their biggest worries. This compares with a figure of only 30pc in Britain.

Suzanne Costello, the Samaritans' Irish director, says: "People are feeling more worried about exams now than before, because they feel that their options are more limited in a recession.''

Prof Fiona McNicholas, child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Lucena Clinic in Dublin, says: "A little bit of stress is good as it sharpens our focus, keeps us alert and in a prepared state. Too much stress is very bad, however, and leads to all sorts of physical side effects.''

Prof McNicholas says parents should not go too far in sheltering their children from stressful situations like exams.

"What we want is our kids to experience many stresses mastered and coped with. That builds resilience. The stress will become less if a student has plenty of experience of exams."

Exam stress-busters offer some pointers to alleviating anxiety:

  • Parents and children should keep things in perspective. Failing is not the end of the world.
  • Think positively. See the glass as half full rather than half empty. Students need to receive support from parents, but not of the nagging variety.
  • Take a problem-solving approach to exam difficulties. Draw up revision plans and study charts. Set some realistic goals.
  • Don't overdo it with caffeine, late nights, alcohol or cigarettes.
  • Students who panic in an exam should take deep breaths. If a question causes them to freeze, then they should move on to an easier question. Come back to the difficult question later. If everything goes wrong in the exam hall, students should follow the teaching of Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.''

Prof Fiona McNicholas, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, will be speaking on Coping With Exam Stress at the Lucena Clinic, Orwell Road, Dublin, on March 9

Irish Independent

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