When it comes to academic performance, it starts and ends with the numbers. Rankings, bands, ATARs, marks, trends—hidden in plain sight behind all the messy marker’s comments and marks circles in red pen is a plethora of data and so many easy opportunities to help your child improve.
But let’s start with some recent stats that hit the news. The HSC performance bands provide some of the most comprehensive sources of data when it comes to academic performance and the competitive advantage of students across the state. According to the NSW Department of Education in 2023, last year’s HSC results indicate that approximately 12% of students scored in the top performance band, and a whopping 72% of students were able to reach Bands 4 to 6.
This, in turn, translates directly to the NSW HSC rankings and results. We saw some massive drops, including the traditional ‘kids to beat’ James Ruse Agricultural College being displaced from its twenty-seven-year-long tenure as the top performing school in NSW and Knox College climbing some 50 ranks. Numbers and rankings are changing all the time, and it shows just how much attention we pay to marks, ATARs and rankings when measuring academic potential. It’s almost always the first thing to instinctively think of when assessing whether a child is doing well or not.
But sometimes the numbers can also serve as a reality check or a wake-up call, an indication that maybe something isn’t quite working as well as it could. The moment your child struggles to get the desired results, it stings and gets the best of most students — even parents.
And in those moments, that’s when we should look beyond the numbers and remarks we see on paper and really investigate why your child fell short. It’s like checking your car and looking under the hood before a road trip. Are your tyres well and good? Is your water level at its most optimal? Where are the gaps that need to be bolstered so your child can move safely and effectively through the rest of the school year?
Maybe they’re struggling to get good results because they don’t like the subject or are not engaged with their current study process. Perhaps they feel overworked and are having a tough time getting focused or retaining information. Sometimes, even a student who studied for hours can get stuck and mind-blanks during an exam.
Once parents identify which parts of their child’s learning system are broken, it will be easier to fix and make sure nothing is at risk. When you get it right, it also becomes easier to support your child in achieving consistently strong results across subjects.
Looking Under the Hood of Poor Exam Results
For most parents, it can be challenging to identify what’s causing the low marks for their children. But one thing is for sure: it’s not just about your child feeling too lazy to study or how tough the subject is. Poor academic performance is multifaceted — your child can be under extreme internal pressure, struggle with personal challenges, or even get affected by their environment, like school or home.
Mind blanks and lack of mastery and confidence.
No matter how much your child reads their textbooks or memorises an entire syllabus, if they haven’t mastered the concepts of what they’re studying and how to get it on paper, they won’t be able to get through an exam easily. Ensuring that students have an effective study regimen complete with exam preparations is an important foundation for improving both their confidence and performance when the exam day comes.
We want students to come into exams with an air of confidence and mastery, assured that they’ve got this. They’re well prepared and can anticipate the questions laid out in front of them. Most importantly, they could present their answer and write it down exactly as the marker wants — all they have to do is sit through the exam.
Disillusion and mismatched efforts
We’ve met a lot of students who just resort to doing paper after paper, and that’s all good. But sometimes, the amount of effort they give into these papers just doesn’t reflect the results they want and causes so much disappointment. A constant cycle of disappointing results can trigger a decline in their motivation and feelings of disillusion, which drags their self-esteem down and influences other bigger aspirations.
It’s essential to make sure that how they study works for them — not against them. Some can’t stand studying for 45 minutes, while others are just not engaged with math or history. By taking a look at their cognitive load or the amount of mental work during various types of study sessions, we can put in active measures to ensure they’re learning and retaining at optimum levels while also preventing their developing minds from being overloaded beyond capacity. Because less is not always more when it comes to study — and pushing beyond healthy limits can cause even the most diligent student to become ineffective and create imbalances in their mental health, sustained focus and motivation
We should also be keen on the different learning modes or teaching approaches that resonate with your child’s unique strengths and tap into those modalities to make the most out of their learning. There are so many things they can maximise, like visual mind maps or charts, podcasts or videos, or even revising and note-taking.
Neurodiversity and other mental health challenges
Anxiety disorders, depression and other mental health challenges can influence a student’s academic trajectory. There are also ADHD, dyslexia, and other neurodiverse factors that affect a child’s learning. It’s so easy to brush these factors off and focus on other things. However, when parents and teachers cannot address these challenges, they become significant roadblocks for these students.
Each child experiences these mental health challenges and neurodiversity uniquely, and we must always approach and support them with understanding and empathy. At Kalibrate-Ed, we’ve seen so many students with ADHD perform better than their neurotypical counterparts during exams because they’re equipped with strategies to tap their knowledge and adapt to their environment, no matter how anxious they get. Their differences represent a beautiful and unique way of problem-solving. But they are not ‘defects’ and these young people are not in ‘deficit’. They might be, for now, unharnessed strengths that are lying dormant, waiting to be activated to help the child succeed — because they can excel just like any other human being once they’ve identified their Unique Learning Profile and been given a map of how to adapt to their learning context.
A Friendly Reminder
In amongst all the talk about marks and ATARs, it’s hard not to get hyper-focused on the marks. But at Kalibrate-Ed, we believe that it’s about behavioural change before academic change.
It’s not always about their marks — it’s about your child giving it a red-hot go and being rewarded for the amount of effort they put in. We want to see them put their best foot forward and reach their highest academic potential. Once they’ve got that, the marks will follow. But to unlock that, it’s going to take hard work, a structured approach packed with clarity and motivation, and a set of tools to help them bounce back whenever they fall off the wagon a little bit.
So yes, at the end of the day, exam results, rankings and ATARs are how students are assessed in this currently imperfect system of education and university admissions. It’s not a perfect system (our critique of that warrants a whole different blog altogether…), but it is what most of us, at least, have to work with.
There is a powerful opportunity for parents and educators to change the tone of the conversation. We should focus on the areas your child is succeeding. Even if these areas may be hard to identify at first, it’s important to look as hard to opportunities where your child has strengths or is putting in effort, as it is to find areas to improve. The challenge is to find that balance between amplifying their existing study effectiveness and lifting them up in the areas that need work so they’re empowered to adapt on the fly as things change.
If you’d like to discover which key area to prioritise to help them improve, check out our Academic Focus Prioritiser. It’s a FREE two-minute assessment to determine where your child can make the most significant change in their academic outcomes.