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 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’
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
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
- 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
- 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,
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.