Children sitting an exam
Education, Stress and anxiety

Why does exam anxiety matter?

Today's guest blog comes from Professor David Putwain CPsychol FBPsS.

24 October 2022

By Guest

Many people dismiss exam anxiety as a natural response to a stressful and pressured event. One that we all have to experience at some point in our lives. Such a position, though, does not adequately account for two central features of exam anxiety.

First, that there are large differences between individual students; there are some who never become anxious or become moderately anxious, while others become highly anxious.

Second, exam anxiety does not just refer to the acute state experienced immediately before or during an exam; highly exam anxious students can panic and worry in lessons, when revising, or even when being reminded about forthcoming exams. Given that academic pressures on students are ever-present throughout the GCSE and A Level period of study, there will be some students experiencing high levels of anxiety throughout this long period.

Prior to the pandemic, studies showed approximately 10 per cent of male, and 25 per cent of female students aged 15 to 18 years reported high levels of exam anxiety. This is, in my opinion, a large number of students; but is this problematic?

The answer is emphatically, yes. There are numerous studies showing that high exam anxiety interferes with the skills required to perform well in exams (memory, concentration and, for some subjects, creativity and flexibility).

As a result, highly exam anxious students perform worse than their low anxious peers. One study showed this was as large as two grades in each GCSE subject taken. Importantly, studies have shown the impact of exam anxiety on exam performance is not an artefact of low ability or prior achievement and that students of all levels of ability and achievement can be affected.

Just as worryingly, there is also a link between exam anxiety to lower wellbeing and poor mental health.

The anxiety experienced in response to exams, if repeatedly triggered, can become habitual and gradually develop into more serious forms of anxiety such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder (feeling on edge all the time and trouble concentrating and sleeping), Panic Disorder (panic attacks accompanied by intense feelings of unease) and Social Anxiety Disorder (intense fear of social activities, speaking to people, and feeling like one is being judged all the time).

Anxiety disorders tend to reoccur and can contribute to a compromised quality of life. In extreme cases, the anxiety becomes unbearable, and students can, and sometimes do, attempt suicide.

As a result, it is my view that we should take exam anxiety a great deal more seriously that it presently is.

Fortunately, there are methods of managing exam anxiety that can be learned and implemented relatively quickly, and studies have shown these strategies to be effective methods of reducing exam anxiety for adolescent students over the long-term. These strategies include:

  • Relaxation strategies (like breathing exercises and guided visualisation) which can provide some immediate relief;
  • Cognitive strategies (learning to identify and challenge those 'hot' thoughts that exaggerate and magnify worries); and
  • Behavioural strategies (using revision to build confidence and control). In summary, by ignoring exam anxiety, we risk young people not reaching their educational potential and potentially damaging their mental health.

Given that exam anxiety is something that can easily be addressed without requiring extensive time or resource, there is no justification for failing to do something about it.

To help enable you to understand and discover strategies to combat exam anxiety, the BPS are running the 'Exam Anxiety: What is it; why it is important; where does it come from; what can be done about it?' webinar on Wednesday 16 November 2022.

This webinar is suitable for anyone who may be responsible for, or may support, young persons, including but not limited to parents, guardians, teachers, activity leaders, and those working in health and social care roles.

Book your place now

About the author

Professor David Putwain is based at the Centre of Educational Research in the School of Education at Liverpool John Moores University. He taught Psychology and Sociology in schools and 6th form colleges from 1994 to 2006.

After completing a PhD in 2006, David joined Edge Hill University working initially in the Department of Social and Psychological Sciences and subsequently in the Faculty of Education, before joining Liverpool John Moores University in 2016.

His research focuses on how psychological factors including motivation, emotion, and engagement, influence, and in turn are influenced by, learning and achievement. He has a longstanding interest in test anxiety among school aged populations and the development of intervention to provide students with the tools they need to manage their test anxiety.

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