“Exams are the cruellest way to test the knowledge of students,” a lecturer once joked. The matric and university students currently sitting their exams wouldn’t find it funny though. Exam stress affects everyone but for some, it can be debilitating.
“Exams cripple me, I have to mentally prepare myself weeks before. I always think I will fail,” Mandisa*, a third year Maths student at Wits university, said. Mandisa describes herself as suffering from exam anxiety and she’s not alone.
Eileen Maleka, a Careers Educator at Wits University’s Counselling and Careers Development Unit (CCDU), told the Daily Vox that there is always an influx of students suffering from exam anxiety as the end of the academic year draws near.
“Students’ anxiety levels go higher due to numerous factors: a student may not have been academically strong, they are facing pressure from bursaries and parents or they are not meeting their own personal goals,” Maleka said.
But, Maleka said, students should not let the anxiety turn them into victims. “They [students] have the power to end their own anxiety, they just need to learn how to deal with it,” she said.
Tumelo*, another Wits student, said he felt defeated when he realised that he might not graduate because he had failed a major component of one of his courses.
“I have contemplated suicide, I feel like a failure. I am not looking forward to exams; I wish I didn’t have to write,” he said.
Tumelo has always done well in his studies, but the pressure of doing well enough to get into the job market triggered his anxiety during the June exams, and his grades slipped.
“I am the first to come to university in my family; everyone is looking up to me. They are looking forward to me graduating and getting a job so I can help out at home, “ Tumelo said.
“It got to me. I couldn’t even study anymore.”
Uncontrolled feelings of stress and anxiety over exams can be counterproductive though. According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), the more anxious and distressed a student is, the lower his results. “Studies have shown that there is a negative correlation between students’ levels of anxiety and their test scores – in other words, the more anxious a student becomes the lower his/her test score is likely to be,” it said in an article on exam stress.
Lerato*, who was diagnosed with anxiety and depression in 2011, said she felt that the exam pressure was worse this year because it was her final year.
“I am a third year student, so there is added pressure in these exams because I need to qualify for Honors and also get a bursary. My parents cannot afford to pay,” she said.
As year end approached, her marks began to drop.
“I know why my marks are bad, I am stressed. It is just so hard to deal with the anxiety,” she said.
The first step in coping with exam stress, according to Maleka, is dealing with the emotions and containing them.
“It is very important to bring an anxious student down to earth; emotions of fear may consume them and derail from their objective of passing their exams,” she said.
“There is a lot of planning that goes into alleviating stress. Creating a controlled and monitored environment for studying and relaxing is critical. We help students realise exactly what is causing their anxiety and then find a coping mechanism that works for them,” Maleka said.
More often than not exam anxiety is caused by a lack of sufficient preparation for the exams, she said, so that is the first thing that needs to be resolved.
“We advise students to consult with their lecturers and do everything academically possible to ensure that they are ready for exams,” Maleka added.
“Relaxing is also vital; and people relax differently. Do something that will help you unwind, whether it is going to the gym, watching a movie or taking a walk.”
Students who are predisposed to depression and anxiety are also referred to a psychologist or psychiatrist.
“Students must remember that they have their whole lives ahead. One setback is not the end of the world,” Maleka said.
“Don’t wait for the bubble to burst, once you feel anxious seek help.”
* Names have been withheld