Exam stress

I’m pretty willing to accept that exams are stressful. Here are a few other things that I reckon people find stressful;

  • driving tests
  • job interviews
  • giving a speech at a wedding
  • participating in a cup final
  • dental appointments (potentially)
  • going to court
  • playing a musical instrument for an audience
  • moving house
  • being burgled
  • travelling, particularly in a foreign country
  • meeting your boyfriend/girlfriend’s parents for the first time

The point is that there are lots of things that are stressful. Some are worthwhile and cannot be avoided. Others should be avoided if possible. Yet nobody is going to navigate the adult world without encountering stress.

I do not wish to suggest that stress is a trivial issue. It can be utterly debilitating and bad for your health. However, we primarily need strategies for managing and overcoming stress because we cannot eliminate it altogether.

I wonder why we sometimes think that schools should eliminate exam stress from students’ lives. This would not seem like good preparation for the adult world.

However, perhaps this is not such a surprise. In the adult world, wrongdoers are punished if they are caught. If I exceed the speed limit then I can expect a fine. However, any attempt to impose similar consequences in schools is likely to lead to criticism for being ‘punitive’.

And this often comes from the same quarters that tend to insist that learning should take place in real world contexts.

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7 Comments on “Exam stress”

  1. Stressful events you choose are one thing. Stressful events you don’t choose are another. Also the stress doesn’t always originate in the activity itself, but in the consequences of it.

    The fact that real life involves a range of stressful events doesn’t justify deliberately exposing children and young people to one particular type with consequences that are largely socially determined.

    • gregashman says:

      There are lots of stressful situations in adult life that we don not choose.

      • Are you advocating exposing kids to a stressful event they don’t choose on the grounds that it’s good preparation for this happening in adult life? Or on the grounds that exams are useful for number of reasons and that any resultant stress is one of those things we just have to put up with/learn to cope with?

  2. David says:

    Just a thought–while I agree with the sentiment, I also think that students end up becomming stressed due to the nature of the exams themselves–are they fair? were they adequately set up? do they effectively assess the content? was there enough time alloted? did the students have adequate preparation time? Often students become stressed when the instructor does not write an effective exam (getting back to what you and Dylan Wiliam have been saying) or does not adequately prepare/cover the content, the exam becomes that much more stressful.

    Also, regarding high-achivers, I recommend William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep to see what happens when stress and anxiety build up. Thre’s a reason why there is a black market in Adderall, beta blockers on many campuses…

  3. I enjoyed school exams. In an environment where students have so little say in what goes on anyway, I found choosing to revise for the exams and learning how to do well was my way of bringing a degree of personal control into the mix. At least, after everything, people would not disapprove of my ‘unfulfilled potential’ which would have been horrible. Allot of my friends were disapproved of because of that. I didn’t want that for myself, so I worked hard to ace all the exams. One of the main things I had to do in order to keep acing these things was to find a way of accepting my lack of choice over being there or not. This kind of acceptance of our lack of autonomy over our futures (except to do everything possible to keep doors open!!! Arrrgh!) isn’t healthy. If we need exams for statistics then, the people who need the numbers could get a sample of volunteers to be assessed like they do when they test everything else; PISA, for example.


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