Wa-a-ay back in the days when I was a teenager facing my end of year exams, one of my best friends admitted that if she passed them all her parents had promised to buy her a leather jacket – the first time I’d come across a basic Cash For Grades offer (and do not discount the fact that a leather jacket was the very height of coolness in our circle in the late 80’s…). This particular friend tended to struggle with some of the more academic subjects, and I remember greeting the news with two emotions – obviously there was instant jealousy of that much-wished-for leather jacket. But I also had a flash of concern over what would happen to my friends’ very fragile self-confidence when she in all likelihood didn’t gain the grades her parents wished for.
In the event, she didn’t make those grades – and got the jacket anyway because her parents are actually lovely people.
Did she work any harder because of the promise of that jacket? Maybe for a day or two, but no matter how much harder she worked she knew she was going to fail Chemistry so there wasn’t much point in trying. And I knew that actually after the initial giddy thrill she had simply felt that leather jacket was just one more level of expectation and pressure.
Of course, in an ideal world, our teenagers are all self-motivated and always work to the best of their ability. But even back then, without the modern day pressures of social media and the Millennial Perfection culture our teens face, this wasn’t likely to happen.
By the time you get to A Levels, of course, you’ve pretty much chosen to be there, and have selected your favourite subjects. You’re just one step away from University or a job, and you can see the point in working and achieving those grades. But GCSE’s are trickier to feel motivated by, aren’t they?
Offering a reward or incentive sounds sensible – after all, what do we all go to work for, if not the reward of money in the bank each month?
But for exams, it’s tricky to get it right. Do you reward results? Hardly fair, when they can so often be beyond a student’s control. From my own experience, they may miss a grade purely because of poor teaching, an exam which throws a curveball (remember the drunk rats in the Biology GCSE?), or there’s inconsistency in marking.
Reward effort, and it’s unquantifiable – do three hours solid study equate to more than nine 20-minute bursts throughout the day, interspersed with Netflix? Does that three hours continuous study entail three hours of whatsapp and YouTube ‘for research’?
At the end of the day, what message are you sending your child? We all want them to do well, of course we do. But we have to accept that not all children will do well in exams; and that our exam system isn’t perfect. No matter how good or motivated your child is, results are not always predictable. And as parents, having made a big deal out of the study or the exam results, the sense of failure at receiving a lower grade is massively heightened. What if your child really works hard, but comes out with lower grades than predicted? Do you then say “oh well, you failed, I keep my cash?”
I know it works really well for some, but for me personally, incentivising my boys wasn’t an option. I want them to learn because they’ve found how to learn, and to motivate themselves. Once they’ve learned that, they can figure everything else out in life.
At the end of the day, our teenagers are a pretty smart, sensible bunch. They know you can’t negotiate with an employer or a university – rightly or wrongly your grades are all that counts.
And no matter what their grades might be, I believe you absolutely should do something nice after their last exam. Don’t forget to actually hug them and say out loud “I’m proud of you”.
Then go unexpectedly splash your cash on some fun.
(you also might like to check out what NOT to say to your revising teenager. It’s totally absolutely serious advice. Honest.)
Collins Revision use repeated practice throughout their GCSE guides to make the information ‘stick’ in the student’s brain longer. This ‘revision that sticks’ method is a proven way of doing better in the exams. #RevisionthatSticks