First, the cold facts: As the HSC (Higher Secondary Certificate) and SSC (Secondary School Certificate) exams draw near, a study of students across Indian metros has once again highlighted disturbing figures. "Exam Preparation Practices," a survey conducted by Delhi's Indian Medical Academy across the capital, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Bengaluru has found that three out of four students are worried about falling short of family expectations and just as many feel physically ill before exams.
Madhavi Shilpi, a mother of two has developed a programme
that helps students develop effective study techniques to reduce
school- and exam-related stress. Called Study Smart programme
she runs this programme intermittently at NSS Hill Spring
International. Pics/Satyajit Desai
That of the 78 per cent who claimed they tensed up before exams, 41 per cent attributed their anxiety to inadequate preparation and a whopping 69 per cent overall claimed they studied for eight hours or more per day, would not surprise Madhavi Shilpi at all. As she takes us through the materials she has devised to help children "develop effective study techniques so as to reduce school-related stress and negate test anxiety," the interior designer, writer and now, proactive mum, tells us how her endeavours to hone her own children's studying skills led to the development of the Study Smart programme (www.studysmartnow.com), which she now intermittently runs at their school, NSS Hill Spring International (Tardeo).
"I've been researching studying skills ever since my children were little," says the mother of 15 year-old Mihika and 12 year-old Mihir, arranging her notes and charts before a workshop commences. "Most of the material I came across was in the form of self-help books," Shilpi shares, adding, "It seemed ironic to me that the authors of such material expected children who lack motivation to successfully implement their strategies."
A Kandivili school uses Reiki, a Japanese meditation technique
during examinations, to help students stay calm and boost their
But, fascinated by how simple it could be to tap a child's full potential, and how effortlessly academic performance could be enhanced by simply recognising the different ways in which each child takes in information, Shilpi started applying the tricks she learnt every time she helped her children study. Over the years, this evolved into training games. "I started by teaching basic organisational, time management and memory skills, and by 2009, this blossomed into a whole programme aimed at increasing learning and motivation," she says.
When this reporter spoke with Shilpi, she was on a mission, so to speak. She was absolutely determined to get a bunch of 6th graders all charged up about studying and before she left their classroom, these kids wouldn't just know how to study better, they'll be certain they can. "Mindsets form an essential component of our programme," says Shilpi, explaining how crucial it is for children to understand, "Just because a classmate grasped a concept or a lesson instantaneously, and you didn't, that doesn't mean you're not as bright and it certainly shouldn't make you give up.
Students participate in a stress management workshop by
Growth Counselling Centre (Chembur) that conducts such
workshops at schools and colleges
One of the first things we talk about is how children learn differently -- not everyone is an auditory learner, and some kids, for instance, may require visual tools, an image or maybe a movie that reinforces what they're learning about. There are also kinaesthetic learners who absorb things better while moving." Shilpi's system not only helps students identify their learning styles, it also lays out practical advice on how these can be used when going through their lessons.
So, for instance, just squeezing a soft toy in one hand or bouncing a ball while going over study material could make it easier for a kinaesthetic learner to retain facts, she says. At the Gundecha Education Academy in Kandivili (East), Principal Seema Vhuj has a different approach. Here, one of the student's mother employs Japanese meditation technique, Reiki to help students stay calm and boost their memory.
Students and a teacher at AAKRATI, a residential education
centre that is located in Bhayandar. Here, students undergo yoga
sessions, play sports, have meditation sessions, followed by a
doubt-clearing session that involves a face to face chat with teachers
Savita Chawla whose son is a Grade 10 student here, has been a Reiki practitioner for 13 years now, but the idea to use it to combat academic pressure and exam jitters occurred to her when her daughter (now 20) was in the 10th grade. "That was about six years ago," says Chawla who says that another important function of the meditation technique is that it serves to assure students that they will not forget what they have studied. Chawla's visits to the school therefore are concentrated around exam time.
The RN Podar School (Santa Cruz) has a similar approach that utilises Tibetan yoga sessions. "We felt these were especially important around exam time as kids need to relax," explains Principal Avnita Bir. "These sessions help them to de-stress and also promote positive visualisation -- so while breathing and relaxation techniques are part of the sessions, students are also asked to picture what sort of report cards they would like to see, to focus on a positive outcome," she adds. Here, the yoga sessions are extended to students from Grade 9 to Grade 12, and over the last three years, says Bir, "We've found them to be very effective."
Positive visualisation and goal-setting are also part of Shilpi's programme as is the emphasis on perseverance. "We also like to get the teachers involved and at my Parel workshops, which are open to students from all schools, one day is dedicated to bringing parents up to speed with the programme too." Essential as this is, it can pose a challenge sometimes, Shilpi admits.
It's hard to alter fixed beliefs. "We recommend a seven to 10 minute break after 45 to 50 minutes of studying," Shilpi says, adding, "A student should get up, walk about, maybe listen to a song or two and then resume work, we feel, but for most parents this is unacceptable." The IMA survey also showed that 36 per cent of children study continuously for three hours or more without taking a single break. Talking about how she explains the scientific reason behind her recommendations, she adds, "We talk about how the brain takes in information, about attention spans and about how taking a break intermittently allows a child to regain focus."
Swati Salunkhe of the Growth Counselling Centre (Chembur) has been conducting stress management workshops at schools and colleges in recent years. "Principals and members of parent teacher associations (PTA) are clearly conscious of the perils of academic pressure," she says. "Generally, we're invited to talk to Standard 10 students," Salunkhe reveals. "Relaxation techniques and visualisation are part of our programme and besides, we emphasise the importance of getting enough sleep, exercise and even nutrition," shares Salunkhe telling us that a point they cannot stress enough is the need to communicate.
"Parents need to understand this too and they need to look for signs like withdrawal, uncharacteristic moodiness, etc. See these signs and you should get your child professional help." Post-graduate students such as those enrolled at Tata Institute of Social Sciences can look forward to less structured, stress-relief initiatives, such as the annual stress-busting fair that the counselling department spokesperson Swapna Redij tells us is organised just a week before exams. "We have been hosting these since 2010," she shares, "We put up stalls with activities ranging from art and craft to assorted games. Students are even invited to use musical instruments that we make available and do an impromptu performance. It helps the students unwind and gets their mind off exams for that day."
The founder of Aasra, a crisis intervention center for the lonely, distressed and suicidal, Johnson Thomas knows how crucial such efforts are. "During the exam and result season, 70 to 90 per cent of our callers are students," says Thomas whose suicide prevention helpline is now even reaching out to schools through workshops. Telling us that though most callers are aged between 15 and 25, they have even received calls from over-stressed six year-olds. Thomas explains that as calls to the helpline are confidential, they cannot intervene unless the caller allows it. "But we get callers to vent their feelings. Once they are calmed, then our trained volunteers take them through the numerous options they have even if their worst nightmares come true."
Dr Anita Sharma, director AAKRATI, a residential education centre in Bhayandar, says this is precisely why her husband and she set up the Gurukul-styled centre. "With the pressure to outperform their peers in every sphere from academics to sports, there's a loss of balance and we felt that creating a schedule that allowed kids to fit everything in -- where each day starts with an hour of yoga, where every afternoon is spent playing sports and where, every evening, includes a winding-down meditative session, followed by a doubt-clearing session that involves a face to face chat with teachers -- is the only way to offer a holistic development."
Madhavi Shilpi's exam preparation tips
Do Active Revision rather than Passive Revision - Use colours, pencils, pens, markers to make a sketch, a summarising chart of sorts, on the topic. You could also make index cards if you're studying a language or questions and answers like the ones you'd find in a Trivial Pursuits game. Don't just look at the book and try to study by rote. That'll just stress you out and the matter won't stick.
It's really important to take short breaks every 45 minutes or so. Use this time to listen to a song or two, or fix yourself a snack, preferably something healthy. A milkshake may be a good idea. Every third hour or so, it's advisable to get a bit of exercise. Let the brain have some time to process the information it has taken in.
You can do some yoga, go for a short run or play a sport of your choice. The activity will recharge your brain.
Do not try to fight sleep by sipping on caffeinated drinks and colas. The sugar and caffeine offers a temporary boost but the crash that follows will drain you and make it impossible for you to concentrate.