Inevitable? Reflections on Beating Exam Time Fatigue

My students are currently facing the last week before their dreaded mid-terms exams. It is their first set of exams of the year and boy does it affect them. In a matter of one week my students have gone from teenagers full of life, energy and optimism, ready to participate and try their best in every activity to teenagers dreading the future, sleep deprived, hardly wanting to sit up and certainly not able to maintain the concentration span of even the most dreamy of teenagers. With this being the first set of exams, things are only going to get worse throughout the year as the pressure builds, it is simply the sad ineveitable truth of the education system most of the world adopts, especially here in South Korea. Today I asked one of my sleepy students how much sleep she got last night, she replied “2 hours”. Even if this is an exaggeration, which I don’t think it is, it certainly explains the change in our students! And I don’t think this change only affects public school and university teachers, in academies a teacher may not be directly involved with the students public school/university exams, but his or her students are still going to feel the fatigue from them.

This time last year I saw exactly the same pattern in my students, and I thought to myself “what can I do? This is Korea, this is how it works here so I’ll just have to accept it and keep teaching.” This year that just doesn’t cut it for me, I’m their teacher, and this is something that is inevitably going to happen year upon year, I can’t just accept that my students won’t learn anything for four weeks of every year, and so if the exams aren’t going anywhere,  that only leaves one solution, I will have to adapt to them. Why are my thoughts different this year? Well, yes I have a year more experience, but I think most importantly I’ve also been lucky enough to be involved with some fantastic role models in reflective teaching sessions.

So as teachers, what can we do to adapt to our students around exam time? One thing I’m certainly not willing to do is have ten students falling asleep in my class, or even one for that matter! So I started reflecting on my lesson planning and the range of activities I used today (I taught exactly the same lesson in exactly the same way as one I taught last week and received a very high assessed score for and had some extremely engaged students) and I came to a few conclusions about what I can do to adapt to my students:

1)    Their attention span is extra super-low, so my instructions have to be shorter and easier to understand. No complicated genius activities on my part!!

2)    Receptive skills (reading and listening) are probably not a good choice; I read to help myself get to sleep when I’m in bed, and on 3 hours sleep I certainly couldn’t concentrate on a 5 minute listening exercise. Perhaps I could have replaced that short description with a picture. Perhaps they could have even chosen the picture from a selection.

3)    Bums on seats is not the way for me to go, two of my activities involved students standing up today and this probably wasn’t enough. I definitely don’t mean make students stand behind their chairs as they can’t sleep when stood up (yes, I have seen these techniques used), I do mean that activities that involve students standing up and moving to gather information could be even more useful than normal, and are probably a must, even if it results in some form of chaos, I reckon this is better than any form of sleeping.

4)    Drawing. Personally I don’t have students making posters etc. too often (mainly due to limited resources), but I figure if I’m going to do it, this is probably the time! I’m saving my poster making resources for this time next semester!

5)    Short, snappy activities. Even shorter and snappier than usual, instead of having my students make 5 questions to ask one partner, perhaps I could have had them make three and ask two people.

6)    My lesson today involved 7 new expressions, that isn’t a lot (I don’t think), however, if students have been up until 3a.m memorizing vocabulary and grammar, there probably isn’t any room left. Also, effective CCQ’s for 7 expressions? Realistically that’s probably up to 10 minutes concentration needed, even if it is interactive between the students and me, which was no problem a week ago, that was too long today.

7)    Taking the students outdoors, fresh air has got to help. Next semester I’m going to think of an activity, any activity, as an excuse to get my students outside.

Some of these reflections are probably things we do as teachers a lot of the time anyway, but I think with a special focus I can beat the inevitability that lurks around every school I’ve worked at that ‘it’s the week before mid-terms, the students can’t learn anything this week’ routine. Unfortunately, I won’t be teaching a pre-exam week class for another two months, but I’ll be sure to come back to this and evaluate how successful I was second time round compared to today!

How do you beat exam time fatigue? I would be really interested to hear any tips to get the most from your classes at this time of year.

Oh, and you can follow me on twitter @alexswalsh

Comments

Kristina
19/04/2012 03:01

Alex,

You are very thoughtful and compassionate to recognize the change in student behavior during these trying times of exams, and you have presented some excellent ideas for modifying lessons with the students in mind. You might also try some lessons with upbeat music, videos, role plays or even TPR! I have had some success with these things as well as appealing to the students’ condition by tossing coffee mix pkgs and tea bags to students who actively and accurately answer pertinent questions correctly. You could take that idea one step further and do a lesson on directions or different registers of writing (recipes) where they learn “how to” make a cup of coffee or tea, and then actually make (demonstrate) it AND drink it!

Anyway, just some ideas that came to mind for me. Just understanding and relating to the students current frame of mind and telling them that you are doing what you can to make things easier on them will be much appreciated by them! It can only make them love you more (than they already do, I’m sure).

All the best to you and your students. Do let us know what post-exam time looks like.

Cheers,
Kristina

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