By Isabel TeotonioEducation Reporter
Tue., Jan. 24, 2023timer6 min. read
In the school library, a group of teens pore over study notes, reviewing math equations and the periodic table, cramming for finals.
Along with most Ontario high school students, they are prepping for exams, for the first time ever.
“I’m scared,” said Ibi Opuso-Jama, a Grade 11 student at David and Mary Thomson Collegiate Institute, who has grown up thinking exams are “the hardest thing,” even harder than making friends. “I’m stressed out.”
This week, secondary students around the province are again writing formal examinations, which were paused when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March 2020. Since then, some kids have written final tests, but they were done virtually or with an open book, and results didn’t count unless they boosted a student’s average.
With the return to normal, these exams matter. To help teens prepare — kids in grades 9 to 11 haven’t ever written exams — schools have run various initiatives. Study spots have been created, homework clubs expanded, and lunch-and-learns organized.
At David and Mary Thomson, staff have run Cocoa and Cram, an after-school exam prep session where kids get tutoring support from teachers and senior students while sipping hot chocolate. Opuso-Jama has regularly attended because it’s easier to focus there than at home, where “there’s family, food and your bed.”
“Here, people are working towards the same goal: to study,” she said at a recent session, surrounded by teens with heads buried in books. “At home, you can take a break and scroll on TikTok, and one hour later you’re still on TikTok.”
Opuso-Jama worries because the return to a regular year has proven more difficult than she anticipated, noting, “We were used to having it so, so easy in Grade 9 and 10, and now it’s getting so, so hard.”
The principal of the Scarborough school, Aatif Choudhry, says staff began talking about exam prep in the summer, knowing the return to a normal year — in person, full day and a regular timetable — would heighten anxiety for some students.
So they came up with ways to alleviate stress, build study skills and deepen engagement. Among them was the Homework Hangout, an after-school drop-in. With exams approaching, it evolved into Cocoa and Cram, staffed by more teachers and student leaders, and frequented by about 60 kids.
“It’s all hands on deck” said Choudhry. “Kids need this space more than ever.”
“Pre-pandemic there were after-school drop-ins to get some help, but not to this extent,” he said. “There’s an intentional approach by classroom teachers to really help prepare students, not just academically, but even emotionally and psychologically, for this upcoming exam period.”
In Toronto, exams start Wednesday in public schools, and Thursday in the Catholic board. In Ontario, 30 per cent of the final grade in a course is based on a final evaluation, which can include an exam, essay, performance or some other assessment. Schools and boards determine whether to administer exams, and how much of the final grade they’re worth. Because many students are out of practice, some teachers, particularly in lower grades, are giving less weight to exams; however, in some courses they account for 30 per cent of the final mark.
“We committed to parents to return students to normal classrooms, which includes a final evaluation worth 30 per cent of a student’s grade,” said Education Minister Stephen Lecce in a statement to the Star. “We will continue to support Ontario students with the largest tutoring program in Canada, alongside updated curriculum, focused on getting students back to the basics of learning in reading, writing, and math.”
For Stephanie De Castro, a Grade 12 student at Senator O’Connor College School in North York, whose exams are worth 20 per cent, study prep has been “nerve-racking” — in part, because she must maintain her average as part of her acceptance to universities.
“It’s kind of make it or break it,” said the student trustee with Toronto’s Catholic board, who’s been busy doing exam prep worksheets provided by teachers and studying with classmates.
“What I’ve really seen this year is students working together,” she said, adding they’re sharing notes and review sheets. “We all want each other to succeed.”
Jeffrey Osaro, a Grade 12 student at Northview Heights Secondary School in North York, wishes his teachers had provided review sheets prior to the winter holiday — as they did when he was in Grade 9 — rather than waiting a week before exams.
“In Grade 9, I was studying over the break … I was definitely better prepared,” recalled the student trustee with the public board. This year, he says, many students felt “in the dark” about what to expect.
After hearing concerns from boards and young people about feelings of stress heading into these exams, the provincially funded support team School Mental Health Ontario gave educators additional resources to help teens prepare. A 2021 survey it did of 2,400 high school students revealed the skills that kids most want to learn at school are how to cope with transitions and stress, manage emotions and achieve goals.
At St. Joan of Arc Catholic Academy, the head of the guidance department, Pedro Correia, says students are “very nervous and anxious” because these exam results count. In recent weeks more teens there have frequented the after-school homework club and visited the guidance office for coping strategies. Correia, who’s been a teacher for about 20 years, notes that compared with before the pandemic, he now sees more kids lacking basic study skills. Some need reminders of the benefits of a routine, exercise and eating well.
The Scarborough school has been providing students with resources, and Abegail Amare, in Grade 11, has made good use of them.
“Some are so obvious that you don’t think of them, like drinking water, taking breaks and sleeping, which is really important,” said Amare. “Staying up late, you may think you’re doing more studying … but your brain won’t retain that information if you’ve overworked yourself.”
At Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute in North York, there’s no shortage of quiet spaces because some classrooms, along with the cafeteria, have been transformed into study halls during lunch and after school. Recently, senior students were visited by guidance counsellors who distributed calendars and showed them how to create a study schedule.
Grade 12 student Zahra Ahmed says that was especially helpful, since many teens are juggling extracurricular activities, part-time jobs and family responsibilities.
“Exams are very daunting,” said Ahmed, who nonetheless is looking forward to them. “I know exams will be a part of my post-secondary schooling, so I’m excited to write one.”
A.Y. Jackson Secondary School, also in North York, held two pizza lunch information sessions called “Exam Jam,” attended by about 120 students. They were led by a handful of senior students, who shared personal experiences about what it’s like to write an exam, along with study tips. Plus, the school’s social worker provided breathing, mindfulness and relaxation techniques.
“We got amazing feedback,” said vice-principal Charu Khurana, noting it was the first time the school ran such a workshop and it plans to host more in future.
In Whitby, Grade 12 student Sophie Nwaoha at Father Leo J. Austin Catholic Secondary School is “a little stressed” about exams. But she credits staff with providing “a lot of amazing resources,” noting guidance counsellors recently held a week of lunchtime exam prep sessions, each day with a different theme.
The student trustee with Durham’s Catholic board also says parents play a key role during exam season.
“It’s really important that parents are supportive of their children and give them time and space they need to study … Just be there for them.”
Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74
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