As of very early ages, we are usually obliged to start taking exams in order to be seen as successful by our teachers, elders, recruiters, etc. During our young times when we are supposed to enjoy our days and do what we really desire, the distress of failure and missing out are always a trouble in our minds, mostly because we live in a highly competitive world. Overcoming this fear of “failure” in exams might contribute to increasing our life quality more than we would ever expect. Thus, bearing this aim in mind, this article will touch upon the reasons behind it, the possible consequences, ways of overcoming and some facts or criticism about idealized educational systems.
(image from: cityspidey.com)
First of all, let’s review some statistics and facts from all around the world concerning this issue. In the UK, in 2020, the number of students calling ChildLine.uk to get help for their exam anxiety had already skyrocketed from 861 to 1,812 between April and June. Most of these calls were about how “lost” they felt and how they were ashamed of demanding the teachers to consider the mental health status of the student while grading. Furthermore, the OECD conducted a research report by their PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) project which was all about schoolwork-related anxiety. To numerous groups of international students, they asked to report whether they agree, strongly agree, disagree or strongly disagree to some questions such as “I worry I will get poor grades at school”; “I feel very anxious even if I am well prepared for a test”; “I get very tense when I study for a test”; and “I get nervous when I do not know how to solve a task at school”. According to the results, 66% of students agreed to the first statement, 55% agreed to the second, 37% agreed to the third and 52% agreed to the last statement. Also, surprisingly, girls emphasized greater distress concerning exams and schoolwork, compared to boys. Some countries which have a greater index of schoolwork-related anxiety than the OECD standards include: Spain, Sweden, Türkiye, Chile, Canada, the UK, etc. Interpreting from what we have seen in the statistics, it is easy to say that exam stress is a global problem, even though, a significant amount of adults still see it as a normal response in academic life.
Now, it is best to further observe the reasons behind exam anxiety. The most common reason is the fear of “not living up to expectations.” Fully internalizing people’s perceptions of us, might occur in idealizing an unrealistic version of ourselves, thus making us feel like a failure. Placing too much importance on this image, can make us “measure” our personal worth according to this unrealistic ideal and create a significant amount of distress. This aspect is very similar to perfectionism. Additionally, the unpredictability of exam results might be a source of stress. Again, the possibility of not achieving your “ideal” might seem more important than it actually is at the moment of an exam. Also, in some cases, the expectations are unfortunately not illusions, but facts, pressures created by our surroundings. This might come from parents, teachers or even a friend. In these cases, working on the communication skills of both sides might help since it is usually done with good intentions but resulted in other means. However, at all times it’s important to check in with your own goals and remember that you are enough no matter what other people’s thoughts are.
In order to recognize the exam stress we have, we need to be aware of its symptoms. These might include: tense muscles or headaches, an increased heartrate, feeling confused or having your mind go blank during exams, feeling sick, insomnia, neuropsychiatric illnesses like anxiety and depression, fatigue, constant mood changes etc. Thus, bearing in mind these possible obstacles in daily life, it seems crucial to know how to overcome this constant distress in students.
One of the most common pieces of advice is to have a consistent study schedule. This will ensure that you are factually prepared enough for the test and help ease the feeling of incapability. Also, getting to the exam location early and doing relaxation exercises beforehand, can help you get your heart rate down and stay calm. During the exam, not focusing on what other people are doing will definitely help you focus on yourself and do your best, as sometimes seeing other people scribbling while you are stuck might give you the idea that you are not prepared enough for the test. Additionally, sleeping well the night before the test can help you remain calm as sleep deprivation actually enhances the physical symptoms of anxiety as it also decreases your resilience. Physical trainings aside, the most important aspect is definitely keeping our self-esteem high and being in a good place mentally. As putting your well-being before anything else might be hard in a competitive environment, it is utterly crucial. That includes sparing yourself some quality time with friends and family and ensuring that you are not overworked. At the end of the day, the studying and the achievements are for yourself only. So, while working on one single quality of yourself, you should not ignore other needs that you naturally have.
Lastly, one other interesting aspect of this topic is the possibility of moving towards a future without exams. There are many conflicting ideas about education systems without any exams, however as the anxiety levels in students are reaching a concerning level, teachers can sometimes have the incentive of taking other factors into consideration during the student evaluation. The traditional exam system has the aim to ensure a fair judgment and evaluation of each student, as exams are specified according to branches of subjects.However, it fails to comprehend all forms of multiple intelligences. On this matter, Finnish schools take the lead in most successful and intellectual educational establishments. In Finland, there are no standardized tests. They only offer a voluntary test called “The National Matriculation Exam” for high school students which is optional. The grading systems in Finland are individualized and set by teachers. About the Finnish regulation of education, the Ministry of Education Pasi Sahlberg says: "There's no word for accountability in Finnish… Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” It is also a pedagogical example as it has the aim to promote cooperation rather than competition, assuring the students a relaxed environment. Thus, even though the anxiety levels of students in Finland has drastically increased after the pandemic, it has an approximative anxiety rate of 47%, which is still below the average.
To conclude, there are very several examples of atmospheres where anxiety caused by academic failure is not an obstacle in the daily lives of adolescents. On a small scale, the best thing we can do for ourselves is to be aware of the reasons behind this issue, the consequences, and ways of overcoming. Being an informed society of this source of mental health problems might help us be hopeful of a future without this distress and opt for a global change.
Written by: Şevval Kalkan
Edited by: Bilge Öztürk & Yağmur Ece Nisanoğlu
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