Number. 38 © CDTL 2003
Addressing Students’ Fears about Examinations
Associate Professor Alice Christudason,
Department of Real Estate / Associate Director, CDTL
Assistant Professor Anne Magdaline Netto
Department of Building

As the final approach towards examinations began, we found that during several of our penultimate tutorials in different modules, our students were paying scant attention and confusing fundamental principles. We were rather puzzled as at previous tutorials they had done their ‘homework’ and actively offered their views as enthusiastic learners. So we asked the students what was wrong. After a while, a group representative piped up: “We fear the coming exams.” “Yes, that’s right”, said another and the class nodded in agreement.

We as teachers felt rather unsettled. Since ‘fear’ denoted a negative emotion, we felt a duty to find out more about it. We hoped that addressing students’ concerns would enhance the learning experience and help students to become more interested in the subject and feel more confident when facing the examinations. This led to our preliminary survey of students’ fear of examinations.

Fear factor

Fear has been described as a “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 this definition to our students’ behavioural manifestations, we identified the ‘conditions’ under which their fear arose and ‘the forms of behaviour’ it gave rise to.

  • Arising under certain conditions: Performing under examination conditions requires an assimilation of various skills; students are required to read, understand, analyse, apply their knowledge and then present an organised answer to questions (Messick, 1999). However, these activities must be done within a limited time and often under regimented conditions.
  • Forms of behaviour: Fear leads to freeze, fight or flight (Gray, 1987). In our students’ case, we certainly had evidence of ‘freeze’ and ‘flight’. However, we were curious about how they sought to ‘fight’ their fear.

We devised a simple questionnaire to query the reasons for their fear of examinations and sent it out via email to about 200 undergraduate and postgraduate students in October 2002. A majority of responses cited the following reasons: fear of failure; language problems; fear of ‘black-out’; inability to understand/answer questions; and inability to obtain good grades.

How fears can be allayed

Students’ responses as to how such fears could be allayed fell into two main categories: (a) where the teacher should play a more proactive role; and (b) where the student should assume greater responsibility. As expected, (a) had a larger majority. In particular, students felt that teachers could be proactive in allaying their fears by:

  • Focusing more on examination-type questions
  • Explaining and revising important concepts for the examination
  • Narrowing down the syllabus
  • Providing clearer outlines
  • Having more Question & Answer sessions and providing model answers

Naturally, we were disappointed (though not surprised) that students’ primary concern was getting past the examination with good grades.

Nevertheless, it was heartening to note that students also recognised and knew their own responsibilities in addressing their fear of examinations While the following elaborations to (b) above may seem axiomatic, they certainly assist to provide focus and direct the student/learner to draw upon his/her own resources (Clarkson, 1994):

  • Prepare better.
  • Avoid last minute work.
  • Study consistently throughout the term.
  • Regularly clear doubts about grey areas to ensure understanding of fundamental concepts.
  • Start reading the references early.
  • Empower oneself to do something to make the situation less fearful.
  • Attempt past year papers and understand as many cases as possible.

In addition, we were delighted to note that a large majority of students also realised that there were positive effects to their fear of examinations: they felt that it ‘compelled’ them to gain mastery over the subject, manage their time better, be conscientious and stay focused. This is consistent with established theories on so-called “aggressive test takers” (Sherman, 1982).

Other issues

There are of course, many other variables to consider in order to gain a deeper understanding of such a complex issue, such as how students’ prior knowledge, various forms of intelligence and external stimuli affect their performance. Nonetheless through this preliminary survey, we (and the students) obtained a deeper insight into the reasons behind their fear of examinations. We hope that we will in future be able to more effectively facilitate our students’ arduous journey of ‘getting an education’ and discovering the joy of life-long learning.



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

Gray, Jeffrey Alan. (1987). The Psychology of Fear and Stress (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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.

Sherman, T.M. & Wildman, T.M. (1982). Proven Strategies for Successful Test Taking. Columbus: Charles E, Merrill Publishing.

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