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What Makes Exam Time so Stressful?

Unfortunately, Exam time is the reality that all teenagers face. Exams are even being introduced earlier in primary school as well. The concept of exams is something I believe needs to be seriously reevaluated as a method of assessment in all schools. Is the stress and anxiety around exams, particularly in the later years of high school, worth it ? Is it an accurate reflections of a students performance and aptitude? Can a learner perform to the best of their ability and provide an accurate representation of their intelligence when they are stressed and anxious? I think not. Sadly, we cannot escape exams and we are required to do them not only in school but in tertiary education and possibly the workplace as well. In order to manage the stress and to help our teens cope better during this time, it is important to understand what exactly makes exam time so stressful.

The main contributing factor is… Pressure. There is a huge amount of pressure placed teenagers during exam time. Pressure can be broken down into;

External Pressure:

External pressure comprises of the expectations placed on teens by not only their teachers and schools but their parents, family members, friends and society as a whole. I have noted an increase in external pressure over the past few years as a result of a number of factors. We live in a world of increasing outward recognition and reward systems; whether it is at school or in the workplace.

Incentives are used by parents and companies to ‘encourage’ higher performance. Schools have outward recognition programmes for students who achieve well academically and thus, teens are aware of the attention, recognition and status that comes with performing well; “I am someone if I do well.” The same often goes for sporting performance as well. In this country in particular, teens are becoming increasingly aware of the need to be successful in their future careers in order to make money and to survive. The myth continues that should a teen not achieve well for their grade 11 and matric exams it may be the end of the line for them. It is believed that tertiary education and a successful future are inextricably linked to how well you pass.

Social awareness is also heightened during teenagehood. They are acutely aware of how well they are performing in comparison to those around them. Many teens are faced with the awkward and anxiety provoking conversations after an exam; discussing who got what answer for which question. When results are finally released, there is often discussion about how well they did. I remember, hating these conversations and often trying to avoid them because of the fear that I had not done as well as my friend despite the level of effort I had put in.

Considering the above, it is not surprising that teenagers feel an overwhelming amount of pressure to perform during exam time. The world is telling them that their future is riding on it. That is a very scary thought for a teenager who is only beginning to figure out who they are in the world. It is not surprising that in the build up to exams we start to see more difficult behaviour, acting out, withdrawal, emotional outbursts and panic attacks. All stemming from an undertone of stress and anxiety.

Internal Pressure:

Internal Pressure can be described as the pressure we put on ourselves. Often the level of internal pressure we place on ourselves has a direct link to the level of external pressure we feel. It is also greatly influenced by the level of support we have from those around us and the beliefs we have about ourselves and our abilities.

For example; Susan knows that if she can get at least 5 A’s for her major subjects she will have a much better chance of being accepted into medicine at her favourite University. She also knows that she will receive a special scroll to put on her school blazer at the next prize giving and with that will come her dream car that her parents promised her should she do well. Susan knows that there is a great deal riding on these exams and as a result she withdraws from world and dedicates every spare moment she has to studying.

Another example; Tommy has always found school a bit challenging, he is a ‘hands on’ kind of boy and prefers to do things practically. He has never failed but often gets ‘average’ marks. His best friend is naturally a strong academic and does well on every test, project and exam. The teachers are always congratulating him and recently he was given a special award for his achievements. Everyone tells him he is going to go far. Tommy dedicates hours and hours to studying but somehow never gets the same marks and recognition as his friend. He knows he needs to do better but now he is starting to go blank every time he writes a test. His heart races and he can’t remember anything he studied.

High internal pressure is often seen in perfectionism, low frustration tolerance, low self-esteem and anxiety. Low internal pressure can be seen in avoidance, low motivation, disinterest and withdrawal. Low internal pressure can often be a result of ‘giving’ up which may end up being the case for Tommy in the above example. When doing your best doesn’t give the results you were looking for… why bother?

On that note, I would like to make mention about another factor which links to the pressure and stress felt by all learners during exam time and is often overlooked… Learning Style. For a large number of students writing exams does not match with their learning and thinking style at all. Personally, I did very well at projects and speeches at school but when it came to tests and exams my marks dropped considerably. Others thrive in that type of setting. But for those who are kinesthetic, practically inclines, slow writers, anxiety sufferers, have attention difficulties or struggle with rote learning and the retention of large amounts of information; sitting for 3 hours in an exam is not doing them any justice at all. Learning style and performance anxiety are major contributors to exam stress and performance.

Lack of Preparation and Poor Study Skills

Finally, Lack of Preparation and Poor Study Skills are also seen to be major contributors to exam stress and performance; and often overlooked as well. Many of the teens that I have seen during the build up to exam time are often unprepared and have very little idea of their prefered method of studying. Not all students learn the same and therefore, the way they study would not be the same as well. Just because Jane’s study method get’s her an A doesn’t mean that it is the ‘right’ or ‘best’ method. It is so important for teens to find a method that works for them and helps them to retain and recall information; particularly in stressful situations such as exams. For some people, simply rewriting their notes a million times over works. For others, studying requires a ton of coloured pens, giant pieces of paper and lot of space to make mind maps. If we are not inputting our information correctly or appropriately, there is very little chance that the output will sufficient either. For more information of Study Styles please look at my next blog: “Understanding Study Styles and the Strategies that go with it.” .

Exams are a part of life, understanding the pressure we place on our teens and the pressure they place on themselves can help us to better understand their stress and how to help them manage it.