What we should be telling our ATAR students right now

When thirteen years of schooling come down to a handful of exams giving a single number, it’s easy to see why our Year 12 students find their final year overwhelming. What can teachers and parents do – right now – to help them gain perspective?

I distinctly remember my final year exams, way back in the mid-90s. I had cruised through high school. I was never going to win any awards but I was always comfortably near the top, until the very end, that is. The stress of doing my Tertiary Entrance Exams had manifested in a nasty ear infection right as exams started. It would take two hours of sitting upright at the kitchen table, letting everything drain away before I could walk without stumbling and see without spots, and then I would head off to school to do my exams. My results were not brilliant.

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As soon as exams were over, I felt fine again, and I can’t recall ever having another ear infection in the thirty years since.

Dr Kylie Murphy is Senior Lecturer in Educational Psychology and Pedagogy in the School of Education at La Trobe University and the School’s Director of Postgraduate Programs. Her focus is teaching preservice and in-service teachers the science of learning and how teachers can apply that knowledge to maximise student learning.

“To students and their parents, Year 12 can seem like a bigger deal than other years of schooling,” acknowledged Dr Murphy, “but of course all the learning and habit-forming that happens before Year 12 is just as important. Certainly, what the student does from the start of Year 12 is much more important than what they do in the few weeks before their exams start.”

Ask any Year 12 right now and they’d probably agree that the next nine months should be more important than the final few weeks of exams, but when you are right in the thick of it, it’s easy to lose focus.

So how can we help students get that perspective, and how can parents and teachers work together to help kids navigate through their final year?

Andrew Martin is Professor of Educational Psychology in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales and a Registered Psychologist. His areas of interest are student motivation, engagement, learning, and achievement.

“So, Year 12 is about ‘the number’— and a whole lot more,” he says. “As we all know, the final year at school plays a significant role in determining post-school outcomes. It is particularly relevant to university entry and what course a student enrols in.” However, he reminds students that there are other aspects of Year 12 that are important and do not get enough recognition.

“[Year 12] is the year of school where students will be most self-directed and in charge of their lives and this is important as they embark on young adult life after school. For many students, it is a time when their co-curricular life hits the high notes—whether that be in sport, debating, music, clubs, etc. It is an important social year, the final year among friends before they move into new and different pathways.” Dr Martin

One of the keys to helping students navigate their final year is by keeping their focus on the ATAR as a means rather than an end. It is not the culmination of thirteen years of learning as much as the jumping-off point for the next stage of life.

“Framing the ATAR as journey-defining (not destination-defining) means we can tell students to work hard to optimise their starting points. And, if they do not get the result they want, it is vital to let them know that the attributes they developed while working hard (self-discipline, perseverance, etc.) are the very attributes that will help them land on their feet a little later in the journey,” explains Dr Martin.

“There are many ways forward and the ATAR sets a starting point. Importantly, then, the ATAR defines the start of the journey, not the destination: ultimately, students are in charge of their destination.” Dr Martin

While schools take on the majority of the teaching, parents can always assist with the role of learning. Dr Murphy explains: “Parents can help their students a lot more than many parents – and teachers – think! They don’t need to be an expert in the subject area. And it doesn’t need much time – just half an hour a week can be really helpful. Parents can help in two key ways: retrieval practice and learning by teaching.”

Retrieval practice

To have learned something means information has stuck in our long-term memory and can be recalled when it’s needed. As Dr Murphy explains: “To consolidate info into our long-term memory, it’s not enough to just read it, hear it, or write it. A sports analogy can help. If we want to get better at kicking goals or shooting hoops, it won’t work to just look at the ball. We actually have to practise kicking or shooting the ball. In the same way, just looking at (or hearing or writing) information won’t help us remember it. To get better at remembering a piece of information, we have to practise remembering it.”

Parents and carers are in an excellent position to help, even if they haven’t studied chemistry in decades or never learned a second language. Dr Murphy says students can give their parents some information they’ve tried to learn – for example, a handful of new definitions – and parents can quiz them and tell them whether or not they are remembering the concepts accurately. “It’s the retrieval practice that helps more than just hearing the right answer,” stresses Dr Murphy. “Remembering lots of information is a big part of performing well in Year 12 exams and the time for students to start getting that info into long-term memory is now.”

Learning by teaching

Another way parents can help their students study effectively is by simply asking them to explain what they are learning. “Explaining to others what we are trying to learn is a powerful study technique,” explains Dr Murphy.” This is partly because of the retrieval practice effect, but also because it can reveal gaps in our knowledge. It’s very easy to think we understand content we have read or heard. It’s much harder to prove we understand it by explaining it to someone [so] we tend to put more effort into learning information if we have to explain it to someone else.”

One other way both teachers and parents can help students navigate the stress of Year 12 is by reminding them to focus only on what they can control (i.e. their own results) and ignore what they can’t (other people’s results).

“The challenging part of the ATAR is the ‘R’: rank,” says Dr Martin. “The ‘R’ puts a focus on competing with others and how you compare with others. When students do this, a lot of them can feel anxious and fearful of failure. We encourage students to focus more on PB goals—that is compete with themselves more than with other students, whether that be in terms of effort (studying harder for the next test than the previous test) or in terms of marks (striving a better result in the next test than the previous test). Research shows PB goals are energising and inspiring, and in high pressure situations [like ATAR] they can be very helpful.”


Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

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