A recent survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) made for shocking reading.
Of over 400 ATL members surveyed*, 90% said pressures caused low self-esteem among pupils and around 80% suffered from anxiety related conditions. One in five teaching staff noted that pupils have attempted suicide, while nearly half of those surveyed said students in their school have self-harmed due to stress. Worse still, primary school children are attempting suicide due to key reasons: exam pressures and excessive homework.
As a result, suicidal thoughts are out of control. Teachers directly cited the increasing pressure of a culture of tests and exams, homework and competition on social media.
Indeed, this is nothing new. According to research by social research psychologist Martyn Denscombe, young people are well known to suffer from exam stress for four reasons:
Education or career consequences of exams
Their self-esteem is response to their grades (students obviously have a higher self-esteem with higher grades)
Judgements from friends and parents in relation to performance
Fear of disappointing their teachers and parents
It is pretty impossible however to get through life without some form of exam - be it for a driving test, a straight forward school test, university exam or a series of questions from your partner asking you why you are home late. It’s also pretty impossible to get through all exams without at some point turning over the exam paper to find that everything you have learnt in the past months can’t be recalled - apart from a few answers, your mind is blank - and the more you panic, the worse it becomes. This is a very common characteristic of stress and many people are susceptible to it - until that is, they learn how to over come it.
Stress is a natural, and normal response to a demanding situation. When faced with a stressor, hormones are released into the body - adrenaline, cortisol and norephrine. These cause various physiological changes which is known as the ‘fight, or flight’ response - a physical reaction to the stressful emotion. Although this evolutionary advantage is excellent at preparing the body to either fight or run away from (flight) an eight foot grizzly bear, it’s not as effective when it comes to sitting down quietly in an exam room trying to recall every detail of the answer.
While some stress has a positive effect on improving performance, excessive stress and anxiety can make it almost impossible to focus on recalling information for an exam and it is often the case that the mind becomes completely blank. Research has shown that large amounts of the stress hormone, cortisol impairs the speed of memory retrieval in humans.
Ok, so how do you avoid reacting to an exam paper like you would a grizzly bear?
Be aware that stress is a normal response and can be beneficial if managed.
Be aware that excessive stress will lead to anxiety and panic and will impair your exam performance.
Build stress management and prevention into your lifestyle a long time before your exams.
Be aware that the more you practice using tools to manage exam stress, the more you will be able to manage and control stress and maximise your exam performance.
Managing and controlling stress will mean that you will ace your exams and thrive.
At Thrive, we believe that the increasing emphasis on exams and tests in education should be balanced with education and the provision of tools to allow young people to proactively manage demanding and stressful situations, not only in education but for the rest of their life.