Voluntary groups are reaching out to help HKDSE students cope with stress

Voluntary groups across the city are reaching out to help HKDSE students cope with exam pressure, writes Raymond Ma

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 4:30pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 4:30pm

Next month, 18-year-old Winnie Lee Wing-yee will join nearly 80,000 other people - including more than 66,000 Form Six students (the rest are private candidates) - to become the third batch of students to sit the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) examination.

The HKDSE, which, in 2012, replaced the two-stage matriculation regime that had been in place for more than 30 years, has been criticised for the heavy burden it places on secondary school students. It forces them to cram three years' worth of learning into a single batch of examinations, which are held close together. These exams determine, in one fell swoop, the fate of their post-secondary academic careers and, to a certain extent, their futures.

Lee will sit for two subject papers - Chinese and English - which she is retaking this year despite being enrolled in an associate of arts in English for professional communication programme at the Community College of City University.

During the study leave period, the role of parental support becomes even more crucial
Alan Chan, HK family welfare society senior manager

She is retaking one of these papers - Chinese language - because she failed it last year as a Form Six student at Sheng Kung Hui Tang Shiu Kin Secondary School. But it wasn't for want of trying.

To prepare for her matriculation exams last year, Lee typically studied at least six hours a day during schooldays. During the weekends and study leave, any time that was not spent sleeping or eating was spent in front of a book.

"The pressure, when it comes, hits you suddenly. You come to this realisation that the exams are here, and that you don't have the ability to handle what is coming," Lee recalls.

"You go through your study material day in and day out. But even if you've been studying for a long time, you find that there is much you still don't know."

Despite the HKDSE's supposed shortcomings, most students fare moderately well at coping with exam stress, says secondary school social worker Kelvin Ng.

But he is concerned about the so-called study leave period. This lasts around three weeks, and occurs between the time students are sent home after mock examinations in early March, and when the actual public exams begin in April.

During this period, students are separated from their usual support network of teachers and classmates, and are away from the daily routine that school provides.

Left to their own devices, students must rely on themselves to develop routines that will allow them sufficient time to review their examination syllabuses.

"There are a minority of students who are unable to plan and make use of this study leave period. As a result, they don't perform as well as they should in exams," says Ng, adding that there are additional risks in separating them from the daily support structure they've had for six years at secondary school.

Says Ng: "Study leave is solitary. During school, students are constantly in the company of their teachers and friends - that's their complete support network. If students are sick, they go to the nurse's room.

"If they are unhappy, they can talk to a social worker, and their friends and teachers will give them support. All of this is suddenly gone," he adds.

Other students require an emotional outlet during the actual examination period. This is especially true if they performed poorly on a certain paper, something which can affect their performance on other subjects, and even lead to absenteeism, Ng adds.

"We always tell students to treat each subject paper separately. But oftentimes, if they performed poorly on a given subject paper, it affects their confidence, and this spills over to other subject papers. It can get so demoralising that some can give up entirely," he says.

To address these problems, voluntary organisations across the city have reached out to provide a range of support services. For example, the Hong Kong Family Welfare Society offers counselling at 40 secondary schools and at its Integrated Children and Youth Service Centre in Tseung Kwan O.

It maintains a YouTube channel with short films providing practical advice for students, such as tips on how to stay awake close to exam time.

Also worth noting are the society's dedicated support services for parents, like an informative guide for parents which includes nutritional advice for their children.

It also organises a mock results announcement in which parents and students participate to prepare them for surprises.

"During the study leave period, the role of parental support becomes even more crucial," says Alan Chan Yiu-lun, the society's senior manager (youth service), who adds that while eager to help, some parents may not possess the finer touch needed to offer effective support.

"If you are not the kind of family that regularly vocalises feelings, it can be a bit off-putting. But all it really takes is a few encouraging words, a hand on a shoulder, some soup, or even a lai see packet at the right time," says Chan.

Meanwhile, Hok Yau Club runs tutorial classes, and holds mock exams to allow students to familiarise themselves with the format. After the mock exams, it publishes the mock examination papers with model answers, along with a commentary on common mistakes.

There's also a support hotline staffed by volunteers to provide advice and emotional support to students. Clement Ng, vice-director of the club's Student Guidance Centre, says it normally receives around 300 calls a month from students between February and April.

They typically complain of feeling agitated because of the stress of preparing for the exams, and can report psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches and insomnia. After the written exams are completed in May, students typically worry about their future educational prospects, he adds.

The hotline is most active in the results announcement period in mid-July, when service hours are extended from two hours in the evening, three days a week, to 12 hours a day.

Last year, the number of calls rose to more than 5,000 in the weeks immediately before and after the results were announced.

Another area that could be improved is support services provided to parents and teachers, who can transfer their own anxiety to students.

This could be achieved by providing a better awareness of the range of educational advancement opportunities available outside the major universities in Hong Kong, and by putting a stronger emphasis on life-goal planning.

It is certainly important for the government to provide resources, and for NGOs to launch services that provide for students' needs. But this will have no effect if students are unwilling to seek out help.

"Hong Kong students are not used to seeking support. It's viewed as a sign of weakness. If students feel stressed by exams, they tend to blame themselves," says Ng.

"We don't have a culture in which people are willing to seek out support, something which is more common overseas," Ng says.