Come March and there is an air of anxiety and worry looming for all 10th std. and 12th std. students taking their board examinations in India.
Most of them suffer from stress. For some its mild; for others, severe, even leading to panic attacks. The worst scenario of course is where some actually think ending their lives is their only option!
Newspapers have stopped being a pleasure to read, with news of one child or the other taking their own life due to stress emerging out of internal pressure or pressure and ridicule from parents, teachers or even peers. While there are many tips for the students on how to handle stress, which is of course important, it’s time to look at this issue at a deeper level.
In this article I want to explore why students get into this situation and what are some of the ways one can deal with it systemically.
Why are Examinations so scary and daunting?
The word ‘exam’ does evoke a feeling of fear in most people, not just youngsters. I went through an international exam last year and only I know how many sleepless nights I went through!
All our feelings have a purpose and help us move on with the task in hand. Some amount of fear can be understood as functional anxiety and one that enables us to be on guard and act appropriately. However intense fear can be disabling and not allow the person to do her/his best.
Two key reasons why the fear sets in deep are
- Self-worth & Self-esteem – Examinations and marks have been given very high importance in our society. We have grown up hearing the message that getting high marks is a sign of intelligence and hence directly related to one’s self-worth. Exam stress builds as one fears performance and how others may view it. So those who are average or below average in their performance consider themselves not worthy enough. Examinations heighten this sense of not being good enough, along with feelings of shame, as it brings out one’s performance in public.
- Fear of failure – Failing and making mistakes for most people is unacceptable. Again, these are limiting beliefs that are passed on from elders around us. Failing has its consequences and how the youngster internalises these consequences is crucial to how she/he feels. If failing is considered as the end of life and one feels doomed, then it is sure to arouse intense anxiety. Examinations are perceived as a rope around the child’s neck. Wrong answer the rope tightens; right answer, the child is allowed to breathe. It’s black or white, no greys. However, if one looked at failing as an opportunity to explore other possibilities, then it wouldn’t be so scary. If only exams were looked at as an opportunity to apply knowledge and grow!
Role of parents and the teaching system
Undoubtedly parents and teachers play a significant role in influencing youngsters in their attitude towards performance and examinations.
Parents who stress overly on marks and only praise children for their performance in tests and exams, encourage them to become competitive and just marks focused. It inculcates the need to compare and fosters unhealthy competition. While marks are important, it takes away the ability of the child to internalise the real learning, because the focus is on cramming and producing results. This also results in the youngster equating one’s abilities with marks, which in turn, results in fear and anxiety for exams.
The joy of learning is totally lost and the child may even develop a dis-taste for education.
While making mistakes is the best way to learn new things, rarely have we had a teacher who gave us the permission to do so. Very often students have been ridiculed or put down by a teacher. This lack of permission is what then leads to anxiety when one is not prepared well or believes oneself to be ill-equipped to take an exam.
Teachers who are warm, enthusiastic, allow students space to make mistakes and learn, are sensitive to specific learning needs of students. They allow them to grow up as mentally and emotionally healthy and confident human beings.
The system also tends to stress the child out excessively, especially before board exams, since the school has its own targets of pass percentages. As a result, the child is subjected to extreme stress through pre-board examinations, which could have a strong negative effect on the weaker students in terms of their self confidence.
How parents could help in avoiding the fear of Examinations
Parents play an important role in building self-confidence and a high self- esteem in their children. When parents are supportive, involved, encourage original thinking, focus on effort and not on performance then it builds Courage and not Fear in the child.
Here is a list of ways in which parents could help the child from early days onwards
- Observing the child closely to evaluate the child’s learning abilities. Taking professional help, if needed, to assess the same.
- Encouraging the child’s natural strengths. If the child is seen showing an aptitude for art, building that capability through more exposure in that direction, while keeping open the exposure to all subjects in the early years.
- Using positive language to motivate even while correcting mistakes.
- Encouraging the child’s reasoning and logic building abilities through helpful conversations on a range of subjects.
- Selecting schools whose philosophy of teaching aligns with the child’s needs.
- Selecting subjects for higher learning in line with the child’s strengths.
- Giving permissions to the child to express interest areas.
- Listening to the child’s overt and underlying messages and needs.
- Emphasising on the need to put in the right quality of effort and not worry about the marks.
- Marks are not equal to results. The learning is the real result.
- Avoiding comparisons of the child’s performance with that of other siblings or friends
- Encouraging the child to view examinations as just one more event in life rather than a make or break point.
- Discussing and exploring all career options instead of chasing stereotypical options.
Giving freedom to chose a career and life
A recent study done by Gilad Feldman (2016), a researcher from Netherlands, found that students with a high ‘free will’ performed much better than students with low ‘free will’. In other words, students who believed in themselves, their natural ability to do well in exams and believed they had choices, performed much better than those who did not believe in these.
Carl Rogers, in the 1950’s, spoke about a student-centred approach and ‘freedom to learn’ (Rogers, 1969), as crucial to the learning process. Which is very much applicable even today!
With a diversified economy, we have an infinite number of professions and vocations to choose from. One is no more restricted to becoming just an engineer or a doctor. Yes, do become one if that is what you choose to. Freedom of choice thus is an important element which Rogers and Feldman emphasised. Do our youngsters believe that they have choices?
Parents, teachers and educationists need to make a systemic change in the way exams are viewed and treated. An examination can be the means to evaluate a particular competency but not become an end in itself. Can exams be made friendly? Can exams be made enjoyable? Can exams test what is the strength of the student and not her/his weakness? Can students have choices about exams? Can all students be certified for attending the course even if the grades are low? Can failing a student be removed as an option as long as the course was attended and the examination taken?
These are some questions that we have to answer and take a strong stand on.
It’s high time that parents, teachers and the education system decide what kind of a future we design for our children – One of brightness and hope or one of stress and despair.
Please do leave your comments at the bottom and do share with others if you like this article.