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What is it like to experience exam stress? A student perspective

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: A levels and GCSEs, Exams

Test anxiety blog series: 2

Authors: Tamsin McCaldin, Kerry-ann Brown and Dr Jo Greenwood

With recent changes to exams in England, there has been increased media interest into exam stress and what that might mean for students working towards exams. Although it is likely that anyone preparing for and taking exams will experience some stress and anxiety, research has suggested that around 15% of GCSE students may fall into the category of being ‘highly test anxious’ (Putwain & Daly, 2014). For these students, their levels of stress and anxiety are high enough that their well being and exam performance can be negatively affected.

In response to a growing awareness, many articles have been published giving tips and advice on how to manage and cope with exam stress but little focus has been directed towards what it’s like for the students who are actually experiencing exam stress. Here, Jemma and Sami, two GCSE students in Year 11, give an insight into what it’s like for them to experience stress around their exams.

These are real accounts from students. Although only two are presented here, these examples illustrate common experiences of many students. They show the importance of listening to students, to gain the insight needed to provide the right support.

Image shows flowers growing on side of a cliff, going down to the sea

What is exam stress like?

For Sami, feeling stressed is what he associates most with the topic of exams. “The whole time is just a stressful thing,” he says. “All everyone’s talking about is how your exams are really soon and they’re the most important things… it’s like the whole world - it’s just stress.”

Jemma shares the experience that stress around exams is not confined to the exam itself, or to revision. She explains that she sees the stress as starting early and being everywhere. “You start to feel it as soon as you’re in Year 10 kind of- maybe before actually… And then in Year 11 it’s everywhere. Everyone’s stressing.”

Sami explains that in certain situations, such as when he’s feeling unmotivated to complete a piece of work he knows he’s able to do, a small amount of stress can be helpful. “If I’m stressing over it,” he says, “I’ll be able to get it and do it really quick. Whereas, if I’m not really bothered, like, not really stressed about it, I won’t.” Sami’s exam stress, however, is different and more extreme. It is unpleasant to experience and something he perceives as having a negative impact on his work. “Too much stress is just getting you panicked,” he explains. “And you can’t do anything because it’s too much.” His only solution to remove the feeling is to “move away from revision to calm down because you can’t do anything like that.”

Jemma’s experience of stress is similar. “The amount of pressure on that high level,” she says, “is sometimes so overwhelming that you don't want to do it.” Like Sami, she finds herself moving away from exam preparation and revision because of how stressed it makes her feel. She also describes feeling that stress will affect her during the exam, saying “who wants to sit there in an exam hall and be, like, doing this test when you can't remember anything because you're that stressed out?”

Both students explain that feeling stressed can make them feel negatively about all aspects of their school and exam work. Jemma explains that, “feeling that bad makes you feel like nothing’s right. Everything’s going to go bad.” When she gets extremely stressed she can begin to feel like she won’t get the grades she hopes for and describes feeling like she’s “just going to fail, and then there’s nowhere else to go.” Being extremely stressed can make the situation seem hopeless and success in their exams seem impossible.

What causes exam stress?

Both Jemma and Sami talk about not knowing what various aspects of the exam will be like, and this element of the unknown being a source of stress.

For Jemma, it is uncertainty around the exam itself which is a source of stress. “You don’t know what it’s actually like,” she says, when trying to imagine being in the exam. Even though she has taken mock exams there are still parts of the ‘real exams’ which remain unknown. “You don’t know the people who give out the papers,” she says, talking about the school's use of independent invigilators, “or where you’re going to be and stuff and that’s ominous with stress. It’s horrible.”

Sami describes feeling unsure about the questions which will come up in the exams. His teachers, he says, are more focused on teaching the content of the course than the structure of the exam. He describes asking his teacher about sample exam questions, because he feels, “we need to know what we’re going to come up against in the exam.” Sami explains that his teachers, “say we don’t. Like, we don’t have to worry about that right now, that’s something we do later. I think they will tell us later and that but it’s scary not knowing.”

For both students, as well as the unknown aspects of the exam itself, their lack of confidence in revision technique and confusion around what revision should look like was another source of stress.

Sami and Jemma give similar descriptions of their teachers highlighting the importance of revision, and encouraging them to do it. Sami views his teachers as saying, “you know what, just go home, go revise everything. You’ve got a test coming up,” but explains that he is left feeling that “you don’t know what that means.” He feels unclear on exactly what he should revise, and how he should go about doing it, stating that he wants his teachers to “just tell us what we’re meant to do.”

Jemma explains how feeling unsure of how to revise causes her stress. “Me as a person revising is just not good,” she says, “because, I will stress over it, and I will freak out about it and I just won’t remember anything and I’ll do crap in the exam.” And why does she see revision as a source of stress? “Because,” she explains, “the whole time you’re thinking ‘is this going to be something I remember? Am I doing it right? Should I be reading stuff or making flash cards or something?’”.

What can teachers do?

Interestingly, both students see their stress as something their teachers don’t, and can’t understand. “Unless you’ve lived with a child who’s telling you a lot about their lives and how stressed they are about their GCSEs, you’re not going to know what it’s like,” explains Sami. “There’s not much connection, to be honest,” Jemma says, talking about how much her teachers can understand about her experience of taking exams. “The things they say don’t even make sense for us. They don’t know what we’re thinking.” Despite this, they both agree that there are things teachers could do to improve their experience of working towards exams and reduce their stress.

“They should tell us that it’s not everything,” says Jemma. “Because that’s what every teacher tells us, that our GCSEs will set the future for all our lives. But it won’t. Like, it just won’t”. Sami agrees. His maths teacher, he says, already does something like this. “He says, you know what, if you don’t pass your GCSEs, at least you still learnt something and I’d prefer you learnt something than learn nothing and pass your GCSEs.” As well as making the exams seem more manageable, this gives Sami the sense that his teacher’s support is not conditional on his exam performance. “As least I’ve still got somebody who will be with me,” he says. “Even if I don’t pass my GCSEs, it’s somebody who will give me support and guidance, and still be confident in me. Like, who knows that GCSEs are just exams and you might not pass, but you don’t fail.”

“Advice on doing revision,” Sami says, is something he and Jemma agree would reduce stress when preparing for exams. “I think they should give us different types of revision,” Sami continues. “Like, what we should actually do, not just ‘go and revise,’ because there’s difference types and one type won’t work for everyone. I think it’s quite important.” Advice on specific revision techniques would “make you more confident,” Jemma explains, and reduce stress.

Although, Jemma says, “some kids really want to do well,” she perceives teachers as “putting on pressure”, telling students they are, or should be, stressed. “Just be gentler,” is what she advises teachers. “The pressure is sometimes way too much especially when it comes to revising and studying and extra lessons. Don’t tell us we should be stressed. We don’t need any more stress.”

As Sami and Jemma’s accounts show, students’ experiences of exams are complex.  Discussing stress with your students can help to understand what they are experiencing. Although there are common reactions to stress, each student’s response is likely to be unique. By listening to what they have to say, you can begin to understand how to help and what support and techniques they could be given to empower them to help themselves.

Contributors to this blog series are:

Professor Kevin Woods (blog series co-ordinator)

Dr Cathy Atkinson

Kerry-Ann Brown

Dr Rob Buck

Dr Deborah Flitcroft

Dr Jo Greenwood

Amanda Hipkiss

Dr Abi James

Tamsin McCaldin

David Soares

We are a group of researchers and practitioners working at, or in partnership with, The University of Manchester Institute of Education. We have professional backgrounds as school teachers and/ or educational psychologists working in secondary, primary and special schools. Our research and professional practice covers a range of learning and well-being issues, including those relating to school examinations and tests, such as examination stress, test anxiety, and access arrangements. We are pleased to be working with Ofqual to bring our understanding of these issues to a wider audience through a series of blogs to be published over the coming weeks. These blogs are written for teachers, parents, examinations officers, and older students. We hope you find them informative and helpful.

Recent projects:

Buck, R. (2018). An investigation of attentional bias in test anxiety. Manchester Institute of Education, The University of Manchester

Flitcroft & Woods (2014). The language Key Stage 4 teachers use prior to high stake exams and how this can be adapted to suit their students. DfE ITEP-funded through The University of Manchester.

Hipkiss, A. (2014). Management of GCSE access arrangements: utilizing student feedback and observational data. ESRC-funded CASE project through the North West Doctoral Training Partnership (NWDTP).

McCaldin, T. (2015). GCSE student experience across Key Stage 4. ESRC-funded through the North West Doctoral Training Partnership.

Some recent publications:

Buck, R. (2016). An ethical approach to anxiety manipulation in school-based research. Psychology of Education Review, 40(2), 10-16.

Atkinson, C., Thomas, G., Goodhall, N., Barker, L. Healey, I., Wilkinson, L. & Ogunmyiwa, J. (2019) Developing a student-led school mental health strategy. Pastoral Care in Education. doi: 10.1080/02643944.2019.1570545

Flitcroft, D., & Woods, K. (2018). What does research tell high school teachers about student motivation for test performance? Pastoral Care in Education, 36(2), 112-125.

Flitcroft, D., Woods, K., & Putwain (2017). Developing practice in preparing students for high-stakes examinations in English and Mathematics. Educational and Child Psychology, 34(3), 7-19.

Woods, K., James, A., & Hipkiss, A. (2018). Best practice in access arrangements made for England’s General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSEs): Where are we 10 years on? British Journal of Special Education, 45(3), 236-255.

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  1. Comment by Bruce McLachlan posted on

    Thank you so much for this enlightening perspective on exam stress. As teachers we must ensure that exam stress does not lead to 'failure' and a waste of talent.

  2. Comment by Cal Roberts posted on

    Good to see comments from real students. Would be interesting to see real student views across all things Ofqual talks about.

  3. Comment by Sophie Thompson posted on

    Sounds like they have terrible teachers! When I was at school it was all about exam technique. We did past papers every week so we knew what to expect and how to answer the questions under time pressure so we were fully prepared when it came to the real thing. I really feel for these students. They deserve better.

  4. Comment by Desirae Comas posted on

    Great info, thanks for the share!