Understanding exam 'anxieties' of students

Last Updated 26 March 2014, 14:00 IST

Understanding anxieties reassures students that no problem they face is utterly unsolvable, writes Mohan Das...

Most students are given to believe that there is only one exam anxiety and advised how to manage it. The truth is there are various kinds of exam anxieties. Understanding anxieties raises awareness and reassure students that no problem they face is utterly unsolvable.Exam season is also anxiety season. Therefore exam anxiety comes not without warning. Normally manageable, for some students it can become serious. Anxiety among school children and adolescents is parents’ high educational expectations and pressure for academic achievement.

All our exams and tests are completely foreknown. Yet, most students (and parents) begin to take action when they sense things are going beyond their control, when there is little time left before exams begin. Life, after all, is fraught with anxious moments beyond our control and exams are a good way to prepare children to face reality although nobody should come to conclusions and brand students based on their exam scores alone. Exams also help keep students focussed.

Generally, people believe exam anxiety is singular and there are no exam anxieties. It so happens that there are two kinds of exam anxieties: public-exam anxiety and entrance-test anxiety; and in some instances they have an inverse relation. Public-exam anxiety also has stages.

Stages of exam  anxietyLike any disorder exam anxiety comes in stages beginning with pre-exam/preparation anxiety followed by performance anxiety (during exams) and finally post-exam anxiety (awaiting results). A good performance in a public exam can lead to freedom from further anxieties.Performance anxiety dogs under-prepared students and they can suffer from serious post-exam anxiety as well when they ought to be relaxing!

If a student is poorly prepared it is best for them to delay taking exams aiming for supplementary exams instead. Post-public exam anxiety can reach a minimum among those who have performed well; they are practically ensured of good results. But post-entrance exam anxiety can reach a maximum among students despite a good public-exam performance because their hopes and ambitions almost entirely rest on entrance test results.

Entrance-exam anxiety is generally milder than public-exam anxiety because a failure there does not leave the student in a crunch as failure in a public exam. A failure in a public exam can be a terrifying thing, almost as tragic as a promising child’s future cut short. After all, armed with even a poor public exam score a student can go on to change their course of study and even succeed better than they would have otherwise.

Anxiety of falling behindThe anxiety of success is good, natural anxiety. It sharpens the brain and prepares the student for a tougher-than-expected situation. But the anxiety of falling behind brings with it not only diffidence but a sense of guilt of having wasted resources – time, money, energy and opportunity. Anxiety in itself is not bad. How we respond to it makes all the difference.

Predictability and preparednessUnpredictability limits anxiety. Students seem to show less entrance-exam anxiety than public-exam anxiety. But the same students exult more after their positive entrance-exam results than they exult after positive public-exam results. Why does this happen? The answer is in predictability: Because public-exam papers are more predictable (the topics, topic “weightage”, topic questions, etc can all be envisaged) a student who has performed well can predict their results pretty accurately.  Therefore, predictability minimises post-exam anxiety and, ergo, exultation after public-exam results is also proportionately less.

On the other hand, the unpredictability of entrance-exam performance, particularly exams such as IIT-JEE, can keep even the best in suspense despite a high-level of preparedness and a confident performance. Entrance exams also have limited admittance so even a good performance does not guarantee admission to a good college/university. Naturally, positive results there bring greater joy. But, interestingly, it is precisely this predictability of public exams that can heighten pre-public exam anxiety than pre-entrance exam anxiety. Why?

Public exams and entrance exams

First, some differences. Normally, a student takes only one public exam but more than one entrance exam. Some entrance tests are national and they have their own syllabus which differs from different local/regional exam syllabi. Public exams are not optional like entrance exams.

The aim of public exams is not to sieve students but to ensure maximum passes but entrance exams are meant to sieve students into different courses. Therefore, in public exams, no student has any excuse for a poor performance, and has only himself/herself to blame. Public-exam anxiety is greater because it is also, for some entrance tests, a qualifying exam: students who score less than a set percentage cannot even take the entrance test. Another reason for greater pre-public exam anxiety than pre-entrance exam anxiety is because of fear of underperformance despite a highly predictable format of the question paper. Preparation anxiety is maximum among students less well-prepared, students who are prone to last-minute cramming and guessing.

Managing exam anxiety

Of all anxieties, exam anxieties are easiest to prevent and manage. First, remember that you are more important than your exams. So do not empower exams by letting a poor performance mean the end of your world. Do not try to avoid or overcome anxiety rather confront it and deflate it. Countering anxiety is more important than overcoming it.

If you have not prepared well then set a tight schedule for the remaining time. Do not give more to time to a subject in which you think you are weak; rather give equal time to all important subjects. Avoid staying with one subject too long. Recollection and writing your recollection are very cathartic ways to manage pre-exam anxiety. What you write stays in memory much longer than what you read. Seeing a correct answer immensely helps in calming your senses and helps re-focus your energies. Take enough leisure. 

(Published 26 March 2014, 14:00 IST)

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