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Exam stress and mental health

Damien Hinds states that while exams are “inherently stressful”, they also help build character and develop “resilience and coping mechanisms”.

Exam stress and mental health

It is particularly pertinent to reflect on this at this time, given that many students are currently taking GCSE examinations and A-levels.

We are reliably informed that one in ten children and young people has a diagnosable mental health need (DfE/ DoH, 2017). We know that the causes of mental ill health are complex and multifaceted. Poor mental health is influenced by individual, family, community and school factors and for some young people these factors intersect.

For many young people examinations are stressful. There is currently an emphasis on terminal examinations in which students are expected to recall large amounts of information at the end of a two-year course. The anxiety and stress are richly rewarded when students collect their result in August and often the information which has been memorised is never used again. Currently, succeeding in examinations is reliant on students demonstrating good capacity for memorisation. There is an emphasis on the recall of knowledge and facts and students with good memories are well-placed to succeed.

So, what are the issues? While examinations may have a place in the assessment system, it is important to consider their value. Some students will progress from A-level study to university to study degree courses. The majority of degree courses are designed as modular courses with an end of module assessment. It is uncommon for students to be examined on the whole degree content at the end of three years. Most undergraduate courses utilise a range of assessment modes, including examinations, essays, reports, presentations, group tasks and the production of artefacts. Often these assessments are modular rather than terminal. Many degree courses include a workplace assessment. Thus, it seems that terminal examinations do not prepare students for the types of assessment they will encounter in higher education.

Some students may go on to study in further education colleges. Many of the courses that are studied in further education institutions are vocational and assessments are modular rather than terminal. Some students will go into employment or training where they will be required to develop a range of skills including team working skills, interpersonal skills and problem-solving skills. Success in the workplace is generally not dependent on how much knowledge can be memorised and employees are rarely asked to complete tasks under strict timed conditions, although they will of course have deadlines to meet. Students completing examinations today are entering an uncertain employment market. The pace of change makes it difficult to predict what jobs will exist in ten, fifteen- or twenty-years’ time and it is therefore difficult to identify the precise skills that young people will need in the future. However, it is likely that young people will need a range of skills, they will need to be skilled at problem solving and working in teams and they will need to be able to adapt to a changing employment market. It is therefore unlikely that the ability to memorise facts will provide them with a secure basis for future success.

While exams have a place in the education system, it is also important to emphasise that they are not an inclusive mode of assessment. Students who have strengths in team working, problem solving, and creativity may not get the opportunity to demonstrate what they can do. Some students may already be experiencing mental ill health due to individual, family and community factors and high-stakes terminal examinations provide these students with an additional layer of stress and anxiety which overlaps with their existing mental health needs.

In our view, an inclusive model of assessment which utilises a range of modes of assessment would provide students with a wider range of skills in preparation for further and higher education and employment. Utilising a range of assessment models will enable more young people to demonstrate what they know and can do. The use of modular assessments would better reflect the assessment approaches that students will encounter after they have left school and it will also reduce stress and anxiety on young people and their teachers.

Damien Hinds’ view that examinations prepare young people for life is therefore unsubstantiated.

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About the Authors

Professor Jonathan Glazzard

Jonathan is Professor of Inclusive Education. His research focuses on LGBTQ+ inclusion and mental health. He is a researcher, teacher educator and qualified teacher.

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Samuel Stones

Samuel Stones is an associate researcher with the Carnegie School of Education.

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