Exam anxiety

Exam anxiety

Have you ever entered an exam completely carefree?

It is certain that there isn’t a student who never felt fear of entering an exam. The fear of examination and tests or exam anxiety has negative influence in school and other teaching surrounding and most commonly it leads to insufficient achievements, that is reaching the level of success that is lower than someone’s ability are (Birenbaum and Nasser, 1994.) Exam anxiety refers to a group of physical and emotional responses to pressure or stress that originate from worry because of the exams approaching. It is marked by stress and discomfort expressed in the exam situation, with notable perception of helplessness (Dykeman, 1994). Exam anxiety appears in everyday situations in the people of every age, in situations where they are being examined, evaluated and assessed along with their abilities, achievements and interests. It has become one of the most disturbing factors in schools. (Birenbaum and Nasser, 1994, according to Lufi, Okasha, Cohen, 2004 ). About 30% of students feels very strong anxiety that disturbs their everyday work. (Shaked 1996, Lufi, Okasha, Cohen, 2004).

The majority of authors confirm the existence of two components of exam activity as a condition. (Anderson and Sauser, 1995.; Covington, 1985; Endler and Parker, Bagby and Cox, 1991). The cognitive component (worry) consists of rooming thoughts which are directed towards personal inadequacy, self-criticism, the possibility of failure and worrying about possible unpleasant consequences of failure. Such thoughts make achievements difficult by diverting attention from the exam task and interfering with the process of remembering. Emotional component is represented by physiological and affective reactions such as fastened heartbeat, nervousness, sweaty hands, short breath, dry mouth and similar autonomous reactions of sympathetic neurosystem. Unlike the cognitive component, it seems that emotional component of the exam anxiety has no bigger influences on academic achievements (Deffenbacher, 1980.; Elliot & McGregor, 1999.).

Although research is more about the negative influence of anxiety to achievements, there is also research exploring possible facilitating role of the anxiety in exam, especially if it is low anxiety level during exam situation. Anxiety motivates activity, studying and preparing for exam in due time and it is connected to increased level of body activity, but not with increased results when worries and disturbing thoughts are measured (Živčić-Bećirević, 2003). Facilitating anxiety is also connected to more frequent asking for support and proactivity and facing the problem that asks for solution, unlike disturbing anxiety that is connected to high levels of tension and worry and with (Raffety, Smith and Ptacek, 1997).  So, when the fear is of moderate intensity, we talk about normal condition that focuses students’ attention towards exam and encourages him to better work.

Based on data from research Wine (1980) mentions these characteristics of students that have high exam anxiety. Anxious students have common cognitive set of negative self-preoccupation that is easily activated in situations when they are being evaluated. Neutral situations will be assessed as evaluative, and the signs got from other persons in these situations will be seen as negative. That interferes with memory and information storage, with attention focused on the task and with common cognitive performance. During task performing more often they will get thoughts irrelevant for the task or exam situation. It is important to mention that irrelevant and disturbing thoughts can appear even during the phase of studying and exam preparation. If they are short and quick thoughts that person is unaware of, we call those automatic thoughts. They are negative, scary or disturbing in their content. They can have verbal expression form (e.g. He will ask me what I don’t know again) or form of a picture (e.g. picture of a strict professor). The moment they appear, they cause anxiety, concentration drops and the mood changes. If they appear multiple times, they can seriously disturb learning on cognitive and emotional level. When they appear during studying, they are described as parallel thought process that appears during studying or exam. Current theories of exam anxiety and academic success can be separated into two basic groups. On one side are cognitive models; on the other are models of double deficiency (cognitive skills and learning habits).

Cognitive models (Sarason,1980.; Wine, 1980.) include variables as worrying thoughts irrelevant for task and negative self-preoccupations that arouse exam anxiety and decrease exam achievements. Many authors confirm the significant role of cognitive processes in school achievements and exam anxiety (Arknoffi Smith, 1988.; Bruch, Kaflowitz and Kuethe, 1986.).

Double deficiency model assumes the significant role of cognitive and academic skills (e.g. studying habit). Significant role of skills deficiency in exam anxiety and academic achievements has been confirmed by multiple research (Smith, Arknoff  and Wright, 1990.).  The same authors still claim that cognitive processes are more significant, while academic skills and social learning processes have smaller, but also significant role so they assume that skills deficits could give reflections through negative thoughts during exam.

Research made in exam situations have discovered that negative thoughts are positively connected to exam anxiety, and negative thoughts, exam anxiety and worry are negatively connected to academic success. (Diaz, Glass, Arknoff and Tanofsky-Kraff, 2001.). Some authors confirm the assumptions that the ratio of positive thoughts towards total number of positive and negative thoughts (so called ‘state of mind’) is more relevant in predicting exam anxiety and academic success that the negative thoughts itself (Arknoff, Glass and Robinson, 1992.; Schwartz and Garamoni, 1989.).

Assessment and treatment of exam anxiety

While assessing learning difficulties, focus is moved to identification of thoughts, beliefs and attitudes that students have about their problems and their own capacities for overcoming those problems. Clinical experiences in work with students with learning difficulties also stress out the importance of identification and modification of negative automatic thoughts, Cognitive techniques for identification and modification of negative automatic thoughts often lead to significant decrease of emotional discomfort, improving concentration and efficiency in learning, as well with relieving from exam anxiety (Cohn, 1998).

On the other hand, teaching students to use positive and encouraging automatic thoughts (via technique of self-instructing) also gives positive results in increasing motivation and persistency while preparing an exam

While assessing exam anxiety one should distinguish between exam anxiety as a feature, meaning predisposition of an individual for a certain experience or to perform some behaviour on one hand and exam anxiety as a condition that reflects real reacting of an individual in a specific situation on the other (Endler, Parker, Bagby and Cox, 1991.). Exam anxiety as a condition terms momentary experience of anxiety in examining situation. Exam anxiety as a feature refers to relatively stable differences in frequency and intensity that individuals experience the state of exam anxiety with.

Examining research, many different programmes directed to decreasing anxiety in students, based on cognitive-behavioural treatment, principles of gestalt and methods of relaxation (yoga, deep relaxation of muscles etc.) can be found.

Wachelka and Katz (1999) report that high school students and students with learning difficulties have reduced their anxiety after  8 weeks of cognitive-behavioural treatment and improved learning habits and self-confidence. Cognitive-behavioural methods included progressive relaxation of muscles, lead imagination, self-instructions, training of studying and exam writing skills.

Lufi, Okasha and Cohen (2004) remark that persons differ by the way they experience anxiety. Hence some of them tend to feel the emotional component more strongly while others experience other cognitive component. Considering that, they suggest that those two groups need different approaches to reduce anxiety.

Progressive muscle relaxation

This technique is one of the most effective techniques to relieve anxiety, most commonly used in Cognitive-behavioural treatment of anxiety disorders, which is scientifically proved to be the most efficient for this group of disorders.

In this technique a special form of breathing, so called abdominal breathing or stomach breathing is used so it is important to teach a person this type of breathing at the very beginning. These are the instructions:

Sit in a comfortable place, close your eyes and put your hand onto your stomach. In this exercise you will inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth (your breath should be spontaneous and with your mouth open). Your every breath inhaling should last for 3 seconds (count silently in yourself while breathing in 1,2, 3) and your exhaling for 6 seconds (count while exhaling 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 ). To breathe ‘by your stomach’ means that your diaphragm (a large muscle placed between the lower chest and stomach) is moved, together with lower ribs muscles and abdomen muscles. How will you know whether you are breathing ‘by your stomach’?  You will feel with every breath that your stomach is filled and lifted up while inhaling and it is being set down and emptied while exhaling.  Since your hand is on your stomach you will feel it easily. So breathe by your stomach, and move the upper chest as little as possible. During breathing focus on how your stomach is moving and counting silently (inhaling 3 seconds through your nose and exhaling for 6 seconds with your mouth open). Do not pause between inhaling and exhaling. Breathe slowly and with no hurry. Exercise this pattern for 10 minutes to create routine.

Now that you know how to breathe by your stomach here comes

Exercise of progressive muscle relaxation

It is based on a simple principle of contracting and relaxing larger groups of muscles. This exercise encloses the muscles of entire body. The principle is simple, firstly you contract certain group of muscles, keep your muscles contracted for about 20 seconds than abruptly relax them, lean onto your chair back, breath by your stomach for two minutes and wait until the muscles you had contracted before relax. Here is a detailed description of the exercise. Place comfortably in your chair, close your eyes and try to relax the best way you can.

  1. Firstly contract the muscles of both your hands. Squeeze your both fists firmly, tighten both biceps, feel the tension than relax. Let all the tension come out and notice the feeling in your muscles. Now tighten the muscles of both your hands again, feel the tension, keep the feeling and relax. Feel the difference in your muscles.
  2. Now raise your eyebrows and frown as strongly as you can, keep that feeling and relax. Notice the difference between the tension and relaxation. Repeat once more.
  3. Close your eyes firmly and focus on the tension in them, keep that feeling, than relax and keep relaxing. Repeat this once again.
  4. Tighten the muscles of the back of your neck, feel the tension than release all the tension from the neck and compare the feeling when tightened and relaxed, than repeat.
  5. Now raise your shoulders and tighten them as hard as you can. Than relax, lower the shoulders and feel the difference. Do it once again.
  6. Take a deep breath and tighten the muscles of your chest, feel the tension, than exhale and relax the chest. Repeat once again.
  7. Tighten the muscles of your abdomen and notice the tension in your lower stomach, than relax them and feel them being relaxed. Repeat.
  8. Tighten the muscles of both your legs, outstretch your legs, tighten the fingers up and then relax, feel the difference in your muscles. Repeat once again.

You are now tranquil and relaxed, you have control over the tension in your body and you enjoy the feeling. You feel fresh and when ready you can open your eyes slowly.

If you practice this exercise every day for 20 or 30 minutes, general relaxed condition of your body will appear. After a few weeks of everyday practicing of this exercise you will feel more relaxed all the time. That will significantly fasten your recovery from stress and accumulated fears.

„There were so many things in our lives that we were afraid of and we shouldn’t have, we should have lived!“ Ivo Andrić

Author:  M. Sc. Psych.  Inela Kaknjo

Translator: E. Hodžić


© Divithana, 2013