It was a bright Tuesday morning and we were conducting a
scheduled 2-hour Law tutorial. We were already past the middle
of the first semester and in about three weeks’ time,
the students would be facing their semestral examinations.
As the tutorial progressed, it became increasingly clear to
us that the students were paying scant attention to the topic
before them. From the presentations the sub-groups were making,
the students seemed to be confusing fundamental principles
and the issues before them. We found this puzzling as at previous
tutorials, they had been enthusiastic learners, had done their
‘home-work’, were motivated to contribute and
actively offer their views. In addition, the topic under discussion
was one of the most fascinating branches of the law.
So perhaps there was something more to (or behind) the sense
of gloom that seemed to pervade the class?
We popped a question to the students: “What’s
Eventually, the group representative piped up: “We
are afraid of the exams.” “Yes, that’s right”,
said another. And another, and another and soon about 25 of
them were in agreement as the buzz of consensus gained momentum.
“Oh,” we said, “so is that the
problem?” We left the class that morning feeling rather
unsettled and unfulfilled. Since ‘fear’ denoted
a negative emotion, as their teachers we realised that we
certainly needed to find out more about it; and if possible,
we felt we had a duty to address (if not eliminate) their
fears. Hopefully, they could then face the examinations with
confidence and this would in turn enhance their learning experience
and increase their interest in the subject.
This is what led to our preliminary survey of the issue.
The Fear Factor
Fear has been said to arise due to the ‘anticipation
of pain’; it has been described as the “hypothetical
state of the brain or neuro-endocrine system arising
under certain conditions and eventuating in certain forms
of behaviour” (Gray, 1987; our emphasis
in bold). Adapting the foregoing definition to our students’
behavioural manifestations, we set out to identify the ‘conditions’
under which fear arose and ‘the forms of behaviour’
it gave rise to.
- Arising under certain conditions
The conditions under which their fears arose were ‘examination’
conditions. Performing under examination conditions obviously
requires an assimilation of various skills. Typically, students
are required to read, understand, analyse questions, apply
their knowledge to issues/problems raised, and then present
an organised answer to those questions (Messick, 1999).
That in itself may not have been a problem, except that
all that had to be done within a limited time!
- Forms of behaviour
It is well documented that fear leads one to freeze, fight
or flight (Gray, 1987). In the case of our students, we
certainly had evidence of ‘freeze’ and ‘flight’;
however, we were curious about how they sought to ‘fight’
their fear. The answer to this may be gleaned from their
responses considered below.
We devised a very simple questionnaire (to start off with)
and sent it out to about 200 students in October 2002. Responses
were received via email. The following questions were posed:
- Do you fear examinations?
- What are the reasons for your answer in (1)?
- Do you have the same fear about assignments?
- How can your fears be allayed?
- What are the effects of fear of examinations?
While it is not possible here to go into specifics, inferences
will be drawn and comments made about their responses. As
expected, most of the students answered ‘Yes’
to Question 1 and ‘No’ to Question 3. However,
we will consider some of the responses to Questions 2 and
- Question 2: What are the reasons for your answer
- Fear of failure
- Language problem
- Fear of ‘black-out’
- Unable to understand/answer questions
- Unable to obtain good grades
- Question 4: How can your fears be allayed?
We found that the responses could be divided into two main
categories: (a) where the respondents saw that the teacher had a more significant role to play; and (b) where the student should assume greater responsibility. Also as expected,
(a) had a bigger majority. To elaborate, respondents felt
that teachers could assist to allay their fears by:
- Focusing more on examination-type questions
- Explaining and revising important concepts
- Narrowing down the syllabus
- Providing clearer outlines
- Having more Question & Answer sessions
It is noted (with disappointment but not surprise) that
from the students’ viewpoint, it appears that getting
past the examination is their primary concern. As for (2)
above, students also recognised their own role in addressing
their own fear of examinations (Clarkson, 1994).
Some Offbeat Responses
There was a small category of students whose response to
(1) was ‘No’. These were some of the reasons they
provided for NOT having a fear of examinations:
- They had faced worse trials before (e.g. a major illness).
- They were more afraid of the results (!)
- Examinations were not the be-all and the end-all of university
We were pleasantly surprised with their responses to Question
5. We suspect that the students themselves were pleasantly
surprised. A large majority of students pointed out that they
recognised that there were positive effects to their
fear of examinations. To summarise, they felt that it ‘compelled’
them to prepare and gain mastery over the subject, manage
their time better and be conscientious and focused. This is
consistent with established theories on so-called “aggressive
test takers” (Sherman, 1982).
We realise, of course, that there are a host of other variables
and dimensions that need to be taken into account in order
to gain a better and deeper understanding of an issue as complex
as this. Some of these include matters such as how students’
prior knowledge, perceptions, experiences and intelligences,
the role which external stimuli (other than their teacher)
affect their inclination and performance in a subject. In
other words, there is the particular chicken and egg problem
posed to psychologists—which came first, the stimuli
or the response? (Gray, 1987) Despite that, through this preliminary
survey, we obtained a better insight into the minds of students
and gained a better understanding of how we could help them
in this joyous yet arduous journey of learning, discovery
and “getting an education”.
Gray, Jeffrey Alan. (1987). The Psychology of Fear and
Stress (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sherman, T.M. & Wildman, T.M. (1982). Proven Strategies
for Successful Test Taking. Columbus: Charles E, Merrill
Messick, S.J. (Ed.). (1999). Assessment in Higher Education,
Issues of Access, Quality, Student Development, and Public
Policy. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,
Clarkson, P. (1999). The Achilles Syndrome Overcoming
the Secret Fear of Failure. Shaftesbury, Dorset: Element.