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Why Exams Help Make You a Mental Athlete

30 May 2014

Ask most people – students or teachers – what their favourite part of being at school is and it’s a pretty safe bet that you won’t hear too many of them say ‘Exams’.

Pictured above: Eric Kandel is an American neuropsychiatrist and he was a recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

For secondary students in Years 7, 8 , 9, 10 and 12, the long weekend will not be as fun as it might have been because of the prospect of coming back to exams from Tuesday to Friday next week .  I have every sympathy with them.

So why do we put students through this every year?  Well, it’s for two reasons, and they are both very important.

Firstly, we know that you can only learn something properly (transfer it to long term memory in the brain) when you have actively thought about it – normally several times.  A man called Eric Kandel won a Nobel prize in 2000 for showing how this mechanism works, so we can be confident in what we are saying here.  The key idea here is that “memory is the residue of thought”, so we need to create thinking opportunities – ‘active revision,’ we call it.  Exams are a great stimulus for this kind of thinking, and this really helps with learning.  In the same way that athletes train for a race, developing their physical fitness, so students train for exams, developing their mental fitness.

The second reason is that we want to help students build ‘resilience’ or mental toughness.  In Year 11 and Year 13, students have to cope with a long period of really important exams, which will have a big impact on their university places, careers and life.  It’s tough having to prepare and revise for these exams, and having to keep going for several weeks of coming into school for exams.  So we give students lots of chances to practise this.  Getting used to four days of exams next week is a key part of becoming mentally tough – developing ‘resilience’.   Families also get a chance to practise helping to support students in exam periods, and that’s really important to success.

So, just as a serious athlete trains for a big race using smaller, less important races  to help develop physical toughness and stamina, we want students to train for their GCSEs and IB Diploma so that they can be as successful as possible. 

It helps at times like this to remember that no one likes exams, but they will make you a tougher and fitter mental athlete.

Good luck to everyone with exams next week.

- Stuart White, Vice-Principal


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