Kenya is currently in the grips of a wave of student riots. In the last month alone, about 300 secondary schools have shut down as a result of the unrest. The timing of the riots is not surprising: national exam season is just around the corner. The month of July is when most schools would sit for their Mock examinations – internal exams designed to simulate the national exams. Performance in Mocks is taken as a good indicator of expected performance in the national exam – a fact that makes the exams stressful.

 Given the high tension atmosphere, it is quite likely that events that would ordinarily draw minor reactions from students get blown out of proportion. So what is it that most students are complaining about?

 “The exams are hard.” (according to an investigation by Nation)

 Exams have always been hard and there have always been schools that went on strike on this grievance. I remember an eruption of school strikes in my district when I was in form 2.  Four schools went on strike in close succession around Mock time and they sent emissaries to our school urging us to boycott the exams. The following year, when national exams results were released, one of the schools went on strike over their performance. This time, they marched to the District Education Board office carrying banners that asked “Why did we fail?” in big bold letters. It was a study in irony. The students alleged a plot by district officials to favor certain schools, evidenced by those schools good performance. Incidentally, the ‘favored’ schools had not boycotted mock exams in the previous year.

 Thinking back to this incident led me to some conclusions on the force behind the current wave. The problem is not post-election violence, as has been alleged by some. It is true that parents failed to be good role models when they resorted to looting, maiming and killing to settle political disagreements. However, the pattern of strikes (with the attendant vandalism and arson) has been there since at least the 90s. Think of St. Kizito, Kyanguli, Bombolulu and a string of smaller-scale incidents.

 The problem is not the ban on canning either. I grant that re-introducing caning will raise the personal cost for students rioting and thereby reduce incidence rates. This would only be treating a symptom though.

 The problem is that students feel unprepared for the exam; they have pent up fears, frustrations and they do not know how to deal with the stress. No amount of canning will change that situation.

 The fact that the flare up is especially bad this year can be explained to some extent by the increased pressure to do well in the exam. In 1993 the minimum grade required for a student to qualify for university was a C-plus. As average scores and rates of enrollment rose,  the number of university places remained constant. In last year’s admissions, students with B-plus scores missed university slots. Pretty soon only A and some A-minus students will proceed to University. If you couple that with the fact that there are a few schools that perform extremely well ( a school with over 200 exam candidates scoring an A- average?) then students from schools outside this high-performance set have reason to be worried.

 A lot can be done to defuse the higher stress that students today are under. However, lest it be misconstrued, this is not an argument for the ‘Exams are too hard’ claim. Exams will be hard and students should expect to find similarly stressful experiences in life. The goal of an education is to prepare students for life and stress management is part and parcel of that.

 In my experience students feel prepared when they know they have covered the material to be examined and that they have the skills necessary in the exam room. By skills I mean general test-taking skills: time management, prioritizing the questions to answer, how to react when you come across questions that seem vague (ask for clarification) or unfamiliar (skip it and move on) etc.

 Taken to the extreme, teaching test-taking skills can be destructive. If students are told how to phrase each answer, they end up simply regurgitating the teacher’s information rather than applying their own intelligence. Accordingly, a balance must be struck in this instruction.

 It is also important that the teachers themselves are confident. Students get worried if they realize that their teachers don’t think they are prepared for the exam. I’m not sure how to build teachers’ confidence in their students. A component of any plan with this objective must be ensure that teacher’s cover the syllabus with their students in good time. The Ministry of Education can help here by stepping up school inspection efforts.

 Ultimately, the buck stops with the students. It is foolhardy to think that breaking window panes or burning down a building will somehow improve the students’ performance in the national exam. They must wake up and realize that they have themselves to blame if they don’t get their act together in time for the exam.


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