High school students facing the upcoming exam season from lockdown are tackling a whole new gamut of challenges as they are forced to learn from home

Kiwi teenagers are used to learning from home by now. Last April, more than 800,000 students around the country pulled up chairs at kitchen tables and joined Zoom meetings to attend school virtually.

So when August’s Delta community case sent everybody home again, Kiwi teens were settling back into a somewhat familiar routine – with one important difference.

Previous lockdowns were early in the school year – with last year’s initial lockdown or the brief lockdown in February of this year hitting in term one. This time around, the country was brought to a halt right in the middle of term three.

Corlene Greenwood teaches digital technology and robotics at Epsom Girls’ Grammar School. She said this time of year is crucial to students’ success, so a bit of anxiety on their part is perfectly natural.

“Term three is never an easy part of the school year, our students gearing up for mock examinations and then leading into externals. It’s a pivotal moment for all year levels,” she said. “It’s crunch time. Tension is high – this is everything that they’ve worked for.”

And as students returned for term four on Monday, those in the upper North Island are still forced to learn through the computer screen.

It’s the first time that so many students have had to deal with exams remotely, Greenwood said.

“It’s a first for New Zealand,” she said. “We can’t predict exactly what’s going to happen.”

A recent survey by online learning company LearnCoach found the challenges of lockdown have affected students in a variety of ways.

“What really stuck out was how divided students were about lockdown,” said LearnCoach CEO Dave Cameron. “Just over half the students felt their exams weren’t as frightening as they were earlier in the year – which is a very uncommon feeling for term three, as you are only a few months away at that point. It just shows a bit of a boost some students have had from having a bit more space at home to tinker away and study, and maybe taken some of the time pressure off.”

But on the other hand, a large chunk of the students – 45 percent – reported they are totally overwhelmed by school at the moment.

“It might be that they are on the Zoom calls with their classes, but it’s not really that good – they haven’t been connecting with mates, or they’ve been struggling with motivation.”

LearnCoach CEO said lockdown has had either a positive or negative effect on students, without many responses in the middle. Photo: Supplied

He said the effect of lockdown has been polarising on students, and the results show that in general, they tend to either be thriving or battling. “It seems like most people fall firmly into one or the other camp, with just 10 to 15 percent more in the middle.”

These results came from students around the country, although Cameron said the results for Auckland and areas still in Level 3 were similarly proportioned to the country as whole.

So as exams approach, some students are feeling more prepared than others.

“For some of the students, this remote learning takes some of the pressure away,” said Greenwood, who has been teaching her class to write programming commands for a robot from afar.

“I’d love to see the results from doing exams in their own home – it will be interesting,” she said. “There’s a definite split between those wanting to do it the traditional way or not.”

The current cohort of high schoolers has faced many drastic changes to how high school works, often leaving the “traditional way” well behind. For this generation, part of high school life involves logging in from home.

Cameron said the results of the survey also showed some of the ways the high schoolers of today are unique – either as products of their peculiar era, or in ways they were different even before anybody had even heard of the coronavirus.

One difference is the ubiquity of lofty academic goals. The study found 64.5 percent of students were aiming for endorsement with excellence this year.

“We’ve seen a steady climb in this in the few years we’ve been doing the surveys,” Cameron said. “It’s definitely more common to aim for excellence.” He said what was surprising about this figure is that lockdown seemed to have given it a bump up, if anything.

“In 2002 when NCEA first came out, there was just a tiny 5 percent who were aiming for excellence,” he said. “And then 10 years ago, when I was a teacher, you’d get a chunk of students but it might be a quarter of the class.”

He put the rise of the ‘excellence generation’ down to the tailwinds of self-belief and recognition of the impact a good relationship with a teacher can have.

But therein lies some of lockdown’s challenges – peering at 30 students through a laptop camera isn’t quite the same as being in the room with them when it comes to establishing rapport.

It makes a difference – the study found 71 percent of the students felt their achievement was dictated by their relationship with their teachers in the classroom.

“Research has found that teacher-student relationship strength dictates grades even more than IQ,” said Cameron.

And the excellence generation’s high expectations for success can be a double-edged sword. “Higher expectation also raises the pressure,” Cameron said. “It lines up with the Gen Z profile. They seem to care a lot more, like with issues such as climate change. But that can be hard, too – you learn you can do anything, but you can’t do everything.”

Cameron said a different generation requires a different approach from parents.

“The most helpful short-term thing that could happen is parents getting an awareness that Gen Z care a lot, and generally, it’s no longer cool to fail. So students are going to be putting a lot more pressure on themselves than generations of the past may have,” he said. “So if parents are still of that mindset that they’ve got to kick their kids’ butt to get them to study, they might just be adding a lot of pressure there.”

He said the solution is for parents to act in more of a cheerleading role and find out how they can support their child in little ways. “Maybe it’s bringing them a snack or doing the dishes when they’ve had a big day – coming in to say I am here to back you up, even if I can’t help you with chemistry stuff.”

With nearly 400,000 students logging onto online classes from Level 3 in New Zealand on Monday, the unique challenges of exam season under lockdown may soon be a reality for many.

With Level 3 in Auckland set to continue until at least November 2, it is becoming more and more likely that Auckland teens will be sitting down to write their exams from the middle of November from their own homes.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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