How to help students manage exam disappointment

How to help students manage exam disappointment

Sarah stared at the email on her screen, the letters blurring as her hopes plummeted. The year 12 exam results were in, but they weren't what she had tirelessly strived for.

Sarah’s heart sank, a heavy stone of disappointment settling in. The knock at her door was swift, her mother's voice tinged with concern. “Sarah, are you okay?” But all Sarah could muster was a hollow, “Leave me alone,” her dreams dissolving into the silence of her room.

It’s common for year 12 students sitting exams to set high expectations for themselves, especially since their exam results commonly hold some sway over their future. But what happens when a student doesn’t get the results they’d aspired to, and how can teachers support students who might be disappointed by their results?

Kerri Rhodes is a School Psychologist at Strathcona Girls Grammar. To manage student expectations during the exam period, Rhodes says principals should encourage realistic and achievable goals for individual students. 

“Where students think they ‘should’ achieve certain goals, or where they have set rigid or unrealistic standards, there are higher chances of disappointment and self-criticism,” Rhodes told The Educator.

“Principals and teachers should be aware of encouraging perfectionism in student groups, where only the highest scores are highly valued, and anything less is not celebrated.”

Rhodes pointed out that high achievers can be prone to the ‘three Ps’ – procrastination, paralysis, or over-preparation, which sometimes inhibits performance.

“It’s also important to create a culture that promotes acceptance of learning diversity and a growth mindset,” she said.

Rhodes said educators can also play a crucial role in encouraging students to think beyond their academic results when considering a career path.

“By assisting students to develop a clear understanding of their own strengths and skills, educators can help students work towards creating their own pathways,” she said.

“If students are aware of their strengths and can value their specific abilities, it is more likely they will be able to pursue areas of passion and interest.”

Rhodes said educators should aim to offer opportunities throughout secondary school that increase students’ awareness of a broad range and variety of careers.

“This will promote the worth of a wide spectrum of occupations, that students may not have otherwise be exposed to,” she explained.

“Consider familiarising students with various career opportunities. This can be done through key speaker events and work experience. Introducing students to a wealth of opportunities and enabling them to speak with professionals who can share their experiences of challenges and successes, will make clear the many career paths available to them.”

When it comes to how teachers and leaders can support a student who is disappointed with the mark they receive, Rhodes said teachers, leaders and parents should remind the student that an academic result is not the only measure to reflect their performance or value of their individual abilities.

“Their mark is a number, but it does not define the student as a person or their capacity to succeed in the future,” she said.

“It’s important to emphasise that an ATAR is simply a number to assist in accessing a tertiary course.  ATAR is not the only way to get to university, there are many pathways to access courses.”

Rhodes said it is also important to validate students’ disappointment if they don’t receive the exam results they were hoping for, and encourage students to be kind to themselves in the same way they might be kind to a friend.

“So, their perception can become a little more balanced, prompt students to consider what they have been able to achieve and the challenges overcome along the way,” she said.

“Remind students to focus on finding solutions such as what can be done now, what they can control, and what steps come next.”

Rhodes said these processes are all likely to lead to more constructive ideas about how to move forward in a more positive fashion.

“Self-criticism, on the other hand, is often unproductive and results in feelings of guilt or regret.”