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People within the educational community—policymakers, schools, administrators, teachers and students—use assessments for different purposes. This issue of CDTL Brief presents some discussions on the issues surrounding Assessment.

March 2003, Vol. 6, No. 3 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Addressing Students’ Fears about Examinations
Associate Professor Alice Christudason
Department of Real Estate/Associate Director, CDTL
Assistant Professor Anne Magdaline Netto
Department of Building


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 wrong?”


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.

The Questionnaire

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:

  1. Do you fear examinations?
  2. What are the reasons for your answer in (1)?
  3. Do you have the same fear about assignments?
  4. How can your fears be allayed?
  5. What are the effects of fear of examinations?

Students’ Responses

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 4 here.

  • Question 2: What are the reasons for your answer in (1)?

    - 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 education.

Surprise, Surprise

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).

Other Issues

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 Publishing.

Messick, S.J. (Ed.). (1999). Assessment in Higher Education, Issues of Access, Quality, Student Development, and Public Policy. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Clarkson, P. (1999). The Achilles Syndrome Overcoming the Secret Fear of Failure. Shaftesbury, Dorset: Element.

 First Look articles

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Inside this issue
Assessing Education Quality: Measures and Processes
Addressing Students’ Fears about Examinations
Student Assessment in Problem-based Learning: A Challenge Beyond Reliability and Validity
Implementing Effective Peer Assessment
Self-and Peer-assessments — Vehicles to Improve Learning
What is Quality in Assessment Practice?