GCSEs and A levels: How one school calms its students’ exam nerves

Walking into a GCSE or A-level exam hall can be a daunting experience for students. While we always try not to push the narrative that these exams are life-changing, for many students that is what it can feel like.

To help with the nerves, I used to give our students a pep talk outside of the exam hall before they went in. Normally this would involve standing on a chair to loudly deliver encouraging messages, and then checking that they all had a pen. 

More recently, however, rules regarding teachers being in close proximity to the exam hall have been tightened up. That has given us an opportunity to rethink our approach, and introduce something a little different. 

Each summer we now host what we call “just in time” sessions before every exam. We’ve been doing these for several years now and each year the value added has been immeasurable.

So, how exactly do they work?

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The sessions take place in the canteen. For the morning exams, these take place at 8am, and for the afternoon exams, they take place in the period just before, or after lunch, depending on timings. It is not compulsory to attend, but we strongly encourage students to come along.

In terms of staff, the head of year, head of department and classroom teachers are all present. For the afternoon sessions, cover is arranged to allow staff to take part. We wouldn’t cover multiple staff during the school day unnecessarily, but we use a commonsense approach: providing cover for key subject staff, where possible. We value these sessions and, in particular, want to support heads of department to be there. The morning sessions, of course, rely on staff goodwill.

GCSEs and A levels: Calming students’ nerves

The session is not like an assembly; students do not sit in rows but all together around tables. There is a real feeling that they are all in this together, and you can really see that release of tension as they talk to their peers and teachers. Broadly, the sessions last for about 40 minutes, and offer three things: advice on exam technique, one-to-one support and refreshments.

1. Exam technique

These sessions are not about cramming in extra revision – we do not go over any new exam content. This is because we do not want to panic any students by mentioning something they have not heard about or revised. Instead, we take them through exam technique. For example, how many minutes should be spent on each question, and the importance of taking the time to read a question properly. We emphasis that if it is a paper in which they can choose between questions, they only need to choose one.

2. One-to-one support

We leave plenty of time in the sessions for students to approach their teachers, and ask any burning questions they may have, or get some extra reassurance. If some are looking particularly nervous or anxious, we take them outside of the canteen for a one-to-one chat, to calm their nerves.

3. Food and drink

We also make sure that there is plenty of food – like breakfast muffins and fruit – available for students, as well as bottles of water. So many of them will have been too nervous to eat at home, or may not have had the opportunity: we want them to go into the exam feeling full and hydrated.


It’s clear to us that these sessions are really worth it: there is always a great atmosphere, and students always leave happier than when they arrived. The majority of the year group attend and, as the exam season goes on, we always see attendance increase as students see the value in these sessions.

If I was going to advise others who want to introduce something similar, I’d really stress the importance of communication. We send information about the sessions out in a letter to all parents and students during the first weeks of the summer term, so they have plenty of notice. This includes a timetable, showing the location and time of every session. 

Leaders also need to make sure that all the staff are on board and are aware that it’s a time to offer support and encouragement, not a time to introduce new content.

Ultimately, the sessions are provided to make sure that the students feel supported and to show them that everyone’s behind them. It’s a much better system than having them all meet outside the exam hall just as they are about to go in.

Elaine Warriner is the head of history at St Ivo Academy in Cambridge, part of the Astrea Academy Trust

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