What can students tell us about their experiences of exam pressure?

In Tamsin McCaldin’s brilliant research, we hear from Y11 pupils in their own (unfiltered) words on their individual experiences of exam pressure.
Doctor Tamsin McCaldin
Doctor in Educational Psychology, University of Manchester

Although media interest and research around the impact of exam pressure has increased in recent years, little has been done to capture the voices of students themselves. At the University of Manchester, I conducted a study which followed a group of students through their GCSEs and interviewed them about their experiences. The findings, summarised here, hopefully offer a glimpse into Y11 students’ viewpoints - and how to better understand and support them through exams.

How do students describe experiencing exam pressure?

Students in the research predominantly described two negative emotions: ‘panic’ and ‘stress’ - with panic being the most intense emotion. This involved overwhelming unpleasant feelings which were usually only present for a short time, and often triggered by a specific event such as a revision exercise, or a discussion about exams.

One student, Demelza, described panic as, “a moment where it seems like everything’s just crashing down on you, and you’re not just feeling a little bit worried, you’re actually feeling just intense panic.” Another, Leena, said, “it’s just the worst feeling. The world is ending and you’d basically do anything to get out of there,” while Ethan described it as, “you’re just terrified, like ‘Oh my God this is so scary right now.’ Not nice. Terrifying.”

Interestingly, no students explicitly used the term ‘anxiety’, but the feeling of panic was described in similar terms to ‘test anxiety’ as defined in previous research - and was associated with procrastination and avoidance of revision and other exam-related work. 

Stress was the most commonly discussed emotion, and while it always felt negative and unpleasant to experience, unlike panic, students didn’t always perceive this as something which was “bad for them”. Hanna described it this way: “So if you’ve got too much stress, it’s like all too much on top of you and you just feel bad and that and you can’t do anything, and that’s not going to help. But then, like, if you have just a bit of stress it’s like… you know it’s important.”

Other students agreed that “too much” stress was something which made them feel “awful”, “upset”, or like “you’re low-key killing yourself”. Demelza described “too much pressure” as making “you feel you can’t do it at all.” At different times, however, stress was described as something which had a positive impact on the students. Orla described feeling stressed, “and it’s horrible but you know that you need at least a little bit, just enough to make you work harder.” 

Crucially though, whether stress was perceived as “too much” or “just enough” was not easy for students to interpret - and even when they thought that the stress they were experiencing was “good for” them, it still felt unpleasant to experience it.


What factors affect student emotions around their exams?

Throughout the interviews, students described a number of factors which either increased or decreased their negative emotions. Of these factors, many related to the behaviours of the people around them, including teachers.  

Factors which increased negative emotions 

Vague exam messages

This involved parents or teachers telling students to “go and do some revision” or to “get to work on their exams” without suggesting a specific action they could take. Sophie described being given vague exam messages: “sometimes she’ll just see me sat down and say, ‘what are you doing? You need to go and revise. Go and revise right now’ and it’s like, ‘what exactly do you want me to do?’ It just totally stresses me out.”

Students also felt they were told to start revision before they were given any guidance on how they should be revising. For many students, messages like this contributed directly to feelings of panic.


The dramatisation of the exam

Students described feeling as if their GCSEs were, “a massive deal” and, “the biggest thing we’ll ever have to do”. They discussed parents, teachers, peers and the wider media coverage of GCSEs as dramatising the exams and making them seem, “really scary,” and “the worst time we’re ever going to have in being at school”.

The dramatisation of GCSEs that students experienced made them feel as if they would not be able to cope with them.


Failure focused behaviour management

All the students reported their teachers using messages focused on exam failure as behaviour management. Owen described a situation in his English class: “when everyone’s mucking about there’s a point when [the teacher] will be like, ‘Okay, you have to focus now, you have to stop doing whatever and concentrate because otherwise you’re not going to learn what you need and we’ll fail these exams’.” Even if these messages were directed at other members of the class, students still described them as increasing their negative emotions.


Factors which decreased negative emotions

Actionable exam messages

 Any messages which contained specific and detailed actions which students could take, either at that particular moment in time, during their revision, or during the exam itself, reduced negative emotions. 

This included specific revision strategies or guidance around the structuring of exam questions. Hanna described actionable messages this way: “It’s more helpful if some teachers weren’t just saying ‘go and revise’. What am I going to revise from? Just read the whole book? Is that even revising? How do you know it goes in my head like that? It helps when someone tells you to do this bit and this bit and then that bit.”

For students to perceive exam messages as actionable they had to be explicitly presented as such. The best actionable exam messages were described as messages which gave specific “step by step” actions, and explicitly linked these to the exam.

Familiarisation through experience

Students described familiarisation with the process of doing exam questions or taking mocks as reducing negative emotions. This included the practicalities of how to deal with the unfamiliar processes of the exam such as how to find their seat, and how to fill in exam booklets with centre and candidate numbers. Sophie described it this way: “Obviously if you know what’s coming, then it’s less daunting and stuff, so getting used to being sat there, knowing what it’s going to be, what they expect of you in the exam, that kind of thing.”


How might teachers use this information?

Although the factors which contributed to emotions were common to all students, the sources of these factors (parents, peers, teachers, etc.) and how exactly they were presented were highly individual. Similarly, although students experienced broadly similar emotions, the way in which these feelings changed over time varied between individual students. 

However, despite the individual nature of these experiences, all the students were able to examine and describe how they were feeling and the factors that were contributing to this. Teachers who would like to better understand the perspectives and needs of their students, should open a dialogue with students about exam emotions.

 In terms of day-to-day practice, teachers can increase the positive emotions of all their students by making an effort to avoid messages which focus on failure, and giving specific and structured revision advice, with evidence of how the advice links directly to the exam.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that, although the focus here is on negative emotions around exams, many students also discussed positive feelings. By addressing some of these panic-inducing factors, teachers have the potential to not only decrease negative emotions for their students, but increase positive emotions such as confidence and calmness.

Doctor Tamsin McCaldin
Doctor in Educational Psychology, University of Manchester

Tamsin is a former secondary school teacher, and is currently a lecturer in education at the University of Manchester. Tamsin’s research is in the area of student experience and exam stress.

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