Wednesday 18 September 2019

Exam survival guide: When it comes to goals, do not aim for the impossible

In part one of our three-part exam guide for parents, David Coleman says encouragement will only pay off if expectations of your child are grounded in reality

Leaving Certificate students from St Raphaela’s Secondary School, in Stillorgan, Dublin, left to right: Kate Hanniffy, Laoise Magee, Ana Cassidy and Amy Kehoe. Photo: Damien Eagers
Leaving Certificate students from St Raphaela’s Secondary School, in Stillorgan, Dublin, left to right: Kate Hanniffy, Laoise Magee, Ana Cassidy and Amy Kehoe. Photo: Damien Eagers
David Coleman

David Coleman

We have to wonder, sometimes, if it is we parents preparing for a series of exams or our teenagers. We are often the ones suggesting study timetables, worrying if the course has been covered, buying the past exam papers and offering grinds.

We are the ones urging younger brothers and sisters to be quiet. We are the ones saying "take a break", or "never too late to start studying". We are the ones that have worked out what combination of results, from which subjects, will give most chance of getting the points required.

It is no wonder we are stressed to the hilt. We, typically, have certain expectations of how well our sons and daughters will do and we are highly motivated to help them achieve that.

What we sometimes forget, however, is that all of our enthusiasm for their exams comes to nought if our goals for how well they could do don't match their own goals.

We must be realistic about what we expect from our teenagers when it comes to their study and their exam performance. In setting those expectations we can be guided by a psychological theory of learning called the "zone of proximal development".

The zone of proximal development suggests that we are most likely to learn when tasks are pitched a little bit ahead of what we can already do (ie things we might achieve with a bit of help), but not so far ahead that they are impossible to do.

The same core principle applies to expectations. If we have expectations of our teenagers that are below what they expect themselves, then we are unlikely to give them an additional push to put in effort.

If our expectations of our teenagers are too high and well above what they expect, they will feel hopeless about achieving them and we will feel frustrated that they don't seem willing to stretch for what we believe they can achieve.

By setting our expectations of our children - and teenagers - just a little ahead of what they themselves might expect to be able to achieve, we can often encourage and motivate them to rise to the new level of performance.

But the only way to know whether your expectations of how well they might do in their exams, for example, are aligned with, or are ahead of, or behind, what they themselves might expect, is to talk with them.

When talking (and listening) we must show an openness to hearing about what they believe is manageable or achievable. We must also hold on to our desire to inspire them to slightly greater things.

Suggesting what we believe to be possible (with some more effort, for example) is only encouraging and motivating when it is delivered in a constructive (rather than critical) way.

So, for example, compare "You have always been a good student. If you put in a final push you can get the results you want" with "You have always been a good student. Why are you slacking now? You'll never get what you want without working".

The intent to motivate your son or daughter might be the same, but the first approach is likely to be more inspiring than the second.

When it comes to motivation, we must also remember that the most effective motivation is an internal motivation, or drive, to succeed. Those students who have clear and achievable goals, with a plan for where they want to go next, are likely to be working away effectively.

Other students who are unclear about the future will struggle to have personal reasons to work hard. They may be more reliant on external motivation, like the promise of some kind of reward for good exam results.

There is nothing wrong with working for reward (many of us work at our jobs because they pay a salary, rather than because they are personally fulfilling). But when we can get a sense of personal satisfaction or fulfilment, it makes the desire to achieve much stronger.

As a parent, at this stage, there may be little you can do to further inspire your son or daughter. You are likely to have had all the "chats" and identified all the benefits of working hard to increase the choice and opportunity that your child will have.

This could be the time to pull in some outside help in the form of family or friends, who may be able to give the same message to your son or daughter, but in a form that they may hear more successfully.

For the final days before the exams, however, the best you may be able to achieve is to manage your own stress and to make life as easy and as supportive for the student(s) in your house. In the panels (left) I have given you my five top tips for minding yourself and a separate five top tips for minding your son or daughter.

Irish Independent

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