Just how much stress do exams cause? Is it really necessary?

So this week I’m going to extend on last weeks topic and discuss the amount of stress exams can cause, a brief insight into whether the room we are in can influence this stress and whether in the long run, exams are really that necessary. As a brief personal insight, I really struggle with the process of exams, I can’t deal with the environment they are taken in or the amount of stress the build up can cause. I spend a lot of my time in the exam trying to focus on getting through the whole experience and not concentrating on what the exam is asking from me; in turn this has lead to some poor exam results.

From the moment we enter the education system, test are sprung on us continuously. Sarason et al (1960) state that ‘we live in a test-conscious, test-giving culture in which the lives of people are in part determined by their test performance’. This is a statement I whole-heartedly agree with, our exam results influence our futures; fail our SATS…don’t get into a good high school, fail our GCSE’s… not allowed to study A levels, fail A levels… don’t get into university, fail university…struggle to get a job. Obviously my previous sentence can be disputed somewhat, but in general it is correct; exam results influence a lot, the pressure that these exams can therefore put on us is immense.

Before I go fully into the research that has been conducted into exam stress and the influence this has on us, I decided just to briefly define test anxiety and stress. Test anxiety is a construct considered as situation-specific, this meaning that it is a trait accounting for individual differences in the extent to which people find examinations threatening (Spielberger & Vagg, 1995). There are three main components of test anxiety:

Cognitive- the negative thoughts and self-statements that occur during assessments as well as difficulties that may arise in the exam (struggling to read the questions).

Affective- physiological state (feeling unwell, sweating and shaking)

Behavioural- Revision techniques and procrastination

(Putwain, 2008).

Research into exam stress is extensive, however, one study I found particularly interesting and one, which could explain why we become ill when stressed was one conducted by Cohen et al (2000), their research involved medical students during and after exam time, they measured DRC (DNA repair capacity) and how stress influenced this level. Participants completed questionnaires and also had blood taken at two intervals, one during exam time and one after. Results showed that DRC was significantly lower during exam time that once the period had ended. This shows that when the body is stressed, the immune system becomes weaker making us more susceptible to illnesses (could explain why I’m always ill!)

Research conducted at the Virginia Tech Institute in USA states that group settings can reduce intellectual ability. The paper focuses on the IQ of females during settings such as cocktail parties or classroom settings, however I feel that the results could be extended to the setting of an examination hall. (http://research.vtc.vt.edu/news/2012/jan/22/group-settings-can-diminish-expressions-intellige/)

So the last point I want to focus on during this blog posting, is whether exams are really that necessary? Are they the only thing that can rate our intelligence? Or should students be able to use their creativity, their imagination and their passion for a particular interest to showcase just how intellectual they are? (I will research into this further in future blog posts as well)

It has been stated that exams quash creativity, students revise information and then regurgitate the bits they can remember and hope it is somewhat linked to the ‘magic answer’ the teacher is looking for. However, students are rarely interested in this information, they learn it because they have to, because they know they will be tested on it. Writing about something they are interested in will not gain them the grades they need to progress to the next levels of education. Furger (2002) believes that performance based assessments are a good alternative to traditional methods of testing students and gives them an opportunity to express their knowledge and skills.

If you’ve reached this far down, then well done. Next week I’m going to build on the different types of performance based assessments and the advantages and disadvantages of it. As well as linking back to other forms of assessment and the affect these have on us as students from primary school age up until university level. Questions and comments are always appreciated.

Cohen (2000). Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023%2FA%3A1005503502992?LI=true

Furger (2002). Retrieved from http://www.Edutopia.org/performance-assessment-math

Spielberger, C.D. & Vagg, R.P. (1995). Test anxiety. Bristol: Taylor & Francis.

Putwain (2008). Retrieved from http://www.thepsychologist.org.uk/archive/archive_home.cfm?volumeID=21&editionID=167&ArticleID=1440

Advertisements

19 thoughts on “Just how much stress do exams cause? Is it really necessary?

  1. I agree on diversifying assessment, exams can encourage bad learning habits; I especially find MCQ and short answer assessment require us to only use surface learning- basic keywords and theories. Even when we are tested on our understanding of a topic over knowledge quantity, exams can be very stressful and I sympathise with your view on the setting of them. There is something very inhuman about hundreds of students boxed into a large hall,, forced to sit in silence, all answering the same questions with the same information; it doesn’t exactly breed innovation. Anyway, enough on my assessment preferences! Schwabe, Wolf and Oitzl (2010) explored how stress shapes memory in terms of facilitation and impairment; under stress a rigid “habit” memory is utilised which is reminiscent of surface learning, aimed at regurgitation with the goal of just passing an exam. Cognitive memory, a more flexible type of memory, is more prevalent in less stressful environments; it is this type of memory I believe we should be utilising if we hope to understand and explore complex subject matters.

    References
    Schwabe, L., Wolf, O, T. & Oitzl, M, S. (2010). Memory formation under stress: quantity and quality. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews. 4:34 DOI:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2009.11.015

  2. As wee al know there is pretty much nothing worse than high levels and chronic levels of stress, it consumes every factor in your life and takeover it. Clearly due to this there have been many factors that have been centred around the health of the person who is stressed. A meta analyses has showed that 300 research articles all present roughly the data data and side effects of stress, which are decreases in cellular immunity (so there is a higher chance of becoming ill) and metal decreses in cognitive function in aspects of memory (Miller,Gregory). A study that looks at anxiety and stress in terms of exam scores used 168 student participants, the study found that cognitive test anxiety and emotional anxiety was associated with significantly lower examination scores (Jerrell, Cassady, Ronald, Johnson). Studies like this basically state that the education we are getting right now just is not the right way to do it.

    Biology plays a role in this clearly and is has been suggested that cortisol level change during stressful periods, changes in cortisol can lead to impaired attention (this is why we procrastinate) and impairment in the primacy effect (short term memory). Basically it effects cognitive function a lot! So being stressed really is an education destroyer (Vedhara, Hyde, Gilchrist, Tytherleigh, Plummer). So there some extra information about stress and exam results.

    Suzanne C., Miller.,Gregory E. Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 130(4), Jul 2004, 601-630.

    Jerrell., Cassady., Ronald., Johnson (2002). Cognitive Test Anxiety and Academic Performance, 270–295

    Vedhara, Hyde, Gilchrist, Tytherleigh, Plummer (2000). Acute stress, memory, attention and cortisol. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 535-549

  3. This, like yourself it seems, is a topic very close to my heart!! I always get ill around exam times and stressed as well, which makes me under perform. (It’s not fair 😦 )
    Thankfully (or not) we are not the only ones who this happens to, Culler and Holahan (1980) found that students get a lot more stressed over exam periods. Like you say, there is so much pressure put on us all throughout education about constant testing, that it just seems to me to be one of those things which happen at school and university. How else can institutions reliably measure and compare how good / bad we are at certain topics? I also feel that perhaps it’s character-building to be forced to do things that we wouldn’t otherwise choose to do, makes us stronger 🙂 (definitely singing kelly clarkson in my head now)
    Anyway getting back on topic, Malathi and Damodaran (1999) found yoga to have a remarkable effect on exam-related anxiety. Anxiety levels were significantly reduced after practicing yoga, including on the day of the exam. One of the biggest results in my opinion was that the students in the yoga group showed significantly less fails than the control group (who didn’t do yoga).
    There are undoubtedly other stress-reducing techniques, what works for some may / may not work for others as is the way of life, I think that through life experience, individuals need to figure out which works for them so they can implement them before exams 🙂

    References:
    – Test anxiety and academic performance: The effects of study-related behaviours. (Culler & Holahan, 1980).
    – Stress due to exams in medical students – role of yoga. (Malathi & Damodaran, 1999).

  4. Pingback: Blog comments due 07/03/13 | suzzzblog

  5. I think the issue of stress around exams is an important one as it can have negative effects on performance. However to further your point on exams generating stress and illness I have found research that suggests exam stress can have negative effects on our lifestyle. The results indicated that in comparison to a control the exam stress condition led to a significant increase in perceived stress and emotional unbalance (Steptoe, Wardle, Pollard, Canaan, & Davies, 1996). These beliefs also increased significantly between the baseline and assessment two weeks before the examination period. Furthermore they found that females who were in the exam stress condition who smoked and had low social support increased average use by 54.7%. Participants who had high social support reduced alcohol consumption by 17.5%, however those with low social support increased their consumption by 18.5%. Finally the participants also demonstrated a significant decline in physical activity in the exam stress condition. I found research which further supported this finding that during an examination period there was an increase in reports of illness and symptoms of illness (Glaser et al., 1987). The research here indicates the negative impact stress can have on individuals. Perhaps an alternate method of assessment could be more preferential as at the moment combined with the research you provided and with other comments it appears assessments may not test our true ability. As well as having the potential to cause illness and negatively influence lifestyle. Furthermore it appears the amount of support a student receives from their environment may mediate the effect stress has.

    References

    Glaser, R., Rice, J., Sheridan, J., Fertel, R., Stout, J., Speicher, C., Pinsky, D., Kotur, M., Post, A., Beck, M. & Kiecolt-Glaser, J. (1987). Stress-related immune suppression: Health implications. Brain, behavior, and immunity, 1(1), 7-20.

    Steptoe, A., Wardle, J., Pollard, T. M., Canaan, L., & Davies, G. J. (1996). Stress, social support and health-related behavior: a study of smoking, alcohol consumption and physical exercise. Journal of psychosomatic research, 41(2), 171-180.

  6. I think it’s really interesting looking into the effects that exams can have on students – I always seem to get ill at the times I really wish I wouldn’t (like exam periods and assignment deadlines), it’s interesting to see there might actually be a reason other than “life hates me!” for that! It’s also quite shocking that, despite the research you mentioned about lowered immune systems due to stress, education still makes exams super-important (exams always seem to be worth at least 50%-60% of a module…with obvious exceptions). Research by Hembree (1988) also found that test anxiety causes poor performance and relates to other types of anxiety/fears and low self-esteem. This, again, seems to give the impression that exams result in stress for students which can result in them not being able to perform well in the exam. So, what’s the point in even testing the students, if the chances are the results they get aren’t actually an accurate representation of their true ability? Having said that, there needs to be a way of assessing what students have learned, so it seems that exams are a sort of necessary evil. So maybe the best course of action would be to try to tackle the issue of test anxiety by using various treatments to reduce it (as suggested by Hembree [1988]), perhaps putting less emphasis on the exams to try to ensure that the results students are getting in exams are a true representation of what they have learned.

  7. As I mentioned in a previous comment, I think a wide variety of assessment methods are needed for a balanced curriculum, and as much pressure as there is should not be put on students around exam time. A good way to deal with this stress could be to teach students how to manage stress properly, which will not only be a benefit in exams – be a lifelong skill to have!!! In my mindfulness based approaches module I have learned about how if mindfulness meditation is used properly it can have a huge effect in reducing stress, which has been supported through many different studies and has even helped people improve their long-term health (Grossman et al, 2003). Other studies have found stress has a long term negative effect on brain, behaviour and cognition and can reduce the lifespan (Lupien, 2009). It seems stress in life is certain (along with death and tax’s) so why don’t don’t we deal with the stress we put on students properly, as stress is something that will occur throughout life!

    References:
    http://www.openground.com.au/articles/MBSR_MA_JPR_2004.pdf
    http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v10/n6/abs/nrn2639.html

  8. I think your topic is very relevant and applicable to us all as university students. I also thought you presented the issue very well in this blog. I am actually going to do my blog next week on the effects exams can have students and if there are ways we can overcome these effects. Research by Kang, Coe, McCarthy, and Ershler (1997) found that all students exhibited significant immune changes during exam periods, these then reduced back down near baseline level after the exam period was over. This suggests that exams do have an effect on all students even if they do not feel nervous about the exam. If a student was nervous and had a particular dislike for exams I would think this would be worse and could explain the variation in students physical and behavioural aspects. However, research conducted by Malathi and Damodaran (1999) suggests that the optimal amount of stress can bring out the best in students. They do also indicate that if stress is too much that this can have a detrimental effect on the student. All in all I think exams have there place but I do think they can cause unecessary stress on a student and there should be a balance between exams and other forms of assessment to give all students the opportunity to shine.

    Links:
    http://europepmc.org/abstract/MED/10365315/reload=0;jsessionid=4khph7Nj3o3Sm4Hb6hty.2
    http://journals.lww.com/nursingresearchonline/Abstract/1997/01000/Immune_Responses_to_Final_Exams_in_Healthy_and.3.aspx

    • Thank you for your comment Eve, you’re point is one that I’ve considered myself. However, as we attended a presentation today, and you have picked up on the immune system issues that exams can present. I’ve decided to conduct some research into how the immune system can be stabilized during this period of time. Mindfulness is a practice by which a person needs to ‘be in the moment’ and try and block stress out. They live in the ‘here and now’ of the day and do not look further beyond this. Greeson (2009) found that clinical research indicates cultivating a more mindful way of being is associated with less emotional distress and positives states of mind, furthermore a better quality of life. If this practice of mindfulness was to be incorporated within education, then the effects of exams can be reduced. If this was to happen, do you think that the exam system could be looked on more favourably?
      (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc2679512/)

  9. It is clear that academic testing has a huge stress impact, so I don’t understand why we are still putting children as young as 11 years old under this strenuous exam pressure. I think that exams are necessary at A level and at University(as much as we all hate them), they offer the most accurate knowledge testing than any other method to hand. And I think that overcoming exam stress in order to achieve higher grades is a skill in itself that is necessary to develop. However, implementing these stressful conditions on an 11 year old cannot have a positive impact on the child’s mental state, nor can it possibly be a true assessment of their intelligence. Although you may argue it prepare’s them for later life, this is surely outweighed by the importance of the child’s mental development.

  10. Academic testing can be very stressful, and it is clear that the effects of stress on performance have a detrimental effect. This is shown in a study by Akgun and Ciarrochi (2010) who found that stress had an effect on students performance. Their report noted how stress had an effect on how students performed, but the preparation students put into the exam effected the levels of stress reported.

    They found that students who reported low levels of stress, and as such no effect on their performance were students who were deemed ‘highly resourceful’, and spend much time prepping for the exam. Those students who were categorised as ‘low resourceful’ noted high levels of stress and in turn suffered a detrimental effect on their performance.

    This study shows that there is an effect of stress on performance, however Zajacova, Lynch and Espenshade (2005) suggest that although stress has a negative effect on performance, a better measure of performance amongst students is self efficacy, suggesting that stress is something that students can avoid by preparing better (as Akgun and Ciarrochi (2003) suggested).

    Akgun, S., & Ciarrochi, J. (2003). Learned resourcefulness moderates the relationship between academic stress and academic performance. Educational Psychology, 23(3), 287-294.

    Zajacova, A., Lynch, S. M., & Espenshade, T. J. (2005). Self-efficacy, stress, and academic success in college. Research in Higher Education, 46(6), 677-706.

  11. Hi there, I found this topic really interesting and felt compelled to do some further research into it as I too suffer from anxiety. Alec’s comment about the use of yoga to decrease stress led me to research how exercise can lower anxiety levels, as we all probably know exercise increases endorphins, which in turn ‘makes us happier’. Topp (1989) looked into the effect that relaxation techniques and physical exercise can have on 47 undergraduates’ test anxiety; one group took part in non-meditative relaxation exercises 3 times a week, for 7 weeks, the second group attended a supervised aerobics class 3 times a week, again for 7 weeks. Both groups showed a significant decrease in the amount of stress and anxiety they experienced, and as a bonus the exercise group got fit and healthy! A control group of 20 undergraduates showed no significant change in test anxiety, relaxation, or fitness. This is just one of many studies that suggest that exercise (in anyway, shape, or form) can help to reduce the levels of stress felt by students during exam periods

    http://www.amsciepub.com/doi/abs/10.2466/pms.1989.69.1.35

  12. No one likes exams but how else would you test people’s knowledge of a particular subject? I think that schools should teach students ways to reduce stress/anxiety associated with exams. Kiecolt-Glaser et al. (1985) research suggested that immune functions can be improved by relaxation training, although this study was done on the elderly. In terms of students White house et al. (2000) researched the efficacy of stress intervention. Students were taught self-hypnosis and relaxation training to do daily for 15mins during an academic year and this training lowered anxiety and distress during exam periods.

  13. I am going to go against the grain here; I think that examinations are hugely important. Research suggests that the feedback we obtain from examinations helps us develop our metacognition, and more specifically metamemory (Kruger & Dunning, 2009). Put lucidly, exams help us to know what we know. Other research suggests that one of the most significant differences between strong and weak students lies in metamemorial accuracy (Sinkavich, 1988; Maki et al., 2008). Weak students with low metamemorial accuracy tend to fall subject to the ‘false alarm’ going into an exam and believing that they have done much better than they have in reality, whereas, strong students with high metamemorial accuracy tend to do the opposite. That is, strong students can make accurate judgements about the questions they have scored correctly/incorrectly on but believe that every student will have performed similarly. It is only when both sets of students receive feedback from an examination that they see how they have done in reality, in comparison to their peers. Kruger and Dunning (2009) believe that feedback is a necessity, whether it is positive or negative and provide insight as to why some students may not possess accurate metacognition. This being, society strays away from providing negative feedback. Without such feedback, weak students would be blissfully unaware that they know less than they think they do. Conversely, with feedback weak students can see where their weaknesses may lie and improve upon them.

  14. Academic testing can be very stressful, and it is clear that the effects of stress on performance have a detrimental effect. This is shown in a study by Akgun and Ciarrochi (2010) who found that stress had an effect on students performance. Their report noted how stress had an effect on how students performed, but the preparation students put into the exam effected the levels of stress reported.

    They found that students who reported low levels of stress, and as such no effect on their performance were students who were deemed ‘highly resourceful’, and spend much time prepping for the exam. Those students who were categorised as ‘low resourceful’ noted high levels of stress and in turn suffered a detrimental effect on their performance.

    This study shows that there is an effect of stress on performance, however Zajacova, Lynch and Espenshade (2005) suggest that although stress has a negative effect on performance, a better measure of performance amongst students is self efficacy, suggesting that stress is something that students can avoid by preparing better (as Akgun and Ciarrochi (2003) suggested).

    Akgun, S., & Ciarrochi, J. (2003). Learned resourcefulness moderates the relationship between academic stress and academic performance. Educational Psychology, 23(3), 287-294.

    Zajacova, A., Lynch, S. M., & Espenshade, T. J. (2005). Self-efficacy, stress, and academic success in college. Research in Higher Education, 46(6), 677-706.

    (Sorry, I forgot to log in AGAIN before, you’d have thought I’d have learnt the first time I did it. Clearly not!)

  15. Pingback: Blogs Comments Week 5 | lon03

  16. What a great subject! However I don’t think that exams are all bad – it’s just the way they’re used. There has to be some form of assessment and I suppose exams are a fairly level playing field as EVERYONE is stressed about them – BUT – the point is that the student is not learning the subject …only learning to pass the exam – so I think exams are ok…as long as they encourage learning. This just reminded me of one of our first year talks when we were asked why we had come to university…to get a degree or to learn? It seems strange looking back on it now and realizing how time was taken to make this point …but so many learning opportunities were lost in favour of assessment. To these ends and picking up on Jacks point about MCQ’s – There is an alternative called the Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IF – AT) – which works on the same principle as multiple choice, but the panels are scratched off until the right answer is reached…and the marks fall with every try – however the student knows when they have the right answer, and so can actually learn from these exams. Getting back to your point – I think that this would relieve a lot of stress, as the student knows that they have a number of attempts to get it right.

    (I tried to post a picture of an IF-AT here but it wouldn’t let me – sorry)

    References

    Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IF – AT) http://www.epsteineducation.com/home/Default.aspx

  17. I think everyone seems to have covered a lot of great points many of which I agree with. Stress is a massive issue for a lot of people so perhaps because the educational system is not going to change for many years to come ways of coping with stress should be emphasised to students? Its just an idea, obviously maladaptive coping methods such as drinking and drug taking should be heavily discouraged as when the effect wears off the stressor is still there. However, I have read up on problem focussed coping: which includes, cognitive appraisal, time management, assertiveness, relaxation and meditation, exercise and biofeedback. I will just focus on bio-feedback as I am sure many of you if you are like me are unfamiliar with the term. It has been suggested that by teaching people how to lower their blood pressure and reduce other bodily symptoms of stress, the harmful effects of stress may be counteracted, however some argue it is simply masking the experience of stress rather than providing a respite. I think trying to cope using these techniques and these being emphasised and taught to students could help to alleviate some stress.

  18. Brilliant blog! Honestly the best I feel I’ve read of yours (even though I always enjoy reading your blogs!)
    Such an interesting topic, that could potentially split people down the middle – some people like exams and hate written assignments, some are the opposite.
    Personally, I don’t mind either. I tend to get better marks on written assignments, and I feel that’s because I have the time to research and look for the perfect answer in a sense.
    However, I don’t get particularly stressed before an exam. I feel the better word for me would be nervous (and you don’t wanna be anywhere near me before an exam because I jabber on and on when I’m nervous!).
    The fact that exams seem to stress you to such an extreme, some people not at all, and me somewhere in the middle got me thinking about why this is. Why do some people handle and cope better with exam…even LIKE exams, and some people are driven to the point of feeling physically ill?
    There is research to suggest that the reason behind test anxiety is poor preparation. For example, Culler and Holahan (1980) found that highly test anxious students have less effective study habits, when compared to low anxious students.

    Now, please, don’t for a second think that I’m saying you don’t have good study habits or don’t revise enough. As a friend, I know that’s simply not the case and is not the case in a lot of people.
    So what else could it be?

    Zeidner (1998) observed that even the most conscientious and highly motivated students suffer from test anxiety.
    Sarason (1984) suggested that a student’s anxiety levels can be effected by the task difficulty, the fear of getting a bad mark and that the students with a high level anxiety have less control of attention in the exam itself, which leads to worse grades.

    Another important study I found may explain why I (and I’m sure others) do better on written assignments than exams. Ohata (2005) found that students felt anxious about having to organize their ideas in a short period of time.

    Finally, I’m afraid being a girl may put you at a disadvantage – King et al. (2000) found that females generally reported higher levels of test anxiety than males.

    Sorry for the long comment, but I think you’ve chosen a very interesting subject 🙂

    Culler, R., & Holahan, C. (1980). Test anxiety and academic performance: The effects of study-related behaviours. Journal of Psychology, 72, 16-20.

    King, N. J., Ollendick, T.H., &Prins, P.J. (2000). Test-anxious children and adolescents: Psychopathology, cognitions, and psychophysiological reactivity. Behaviour Chance, 17, 134-152.

    Ohata, K. (2005). Potential sources of anxiety for Japanese learners of English: Preliminary case interviews with five Japanese college students in the U.S. TESL-EJ, 9(3), 1-21.

    Sarason, I. G. (1984). Stress, anxiety, and cognitive interference: Reactions to tests. Journal of Personality and social psychology, 26, 929-938.

    Zeidner, M. (1998). Test Anxiety: The State of the Art. New York: Plenum Press

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s