Theme: Pressure and insecurity from exams and grades

Pernille introducing (in Danish) the theme and material available on the pressure and insecurity from exams and grades.

An increased societal focus on exam anxiety among students

In June 2021, as students across Denmark was having exams, the media started reporting about an increasing tendency of students taking medicine to manage exam anxiety. “Students calm the nerves with beta blockers” read a headline on DR’s website. In the DR evening news that same week in early June, Bo Møhl, a Professor of Psychology from Aalborg University, said that: “we have to see it as a sign of crisis when young people take medicine in order to perform. Then it says something about a sick culture.” Contributing to the public debate, Pernille Steen Pedersen wrote a chronicle brought by Berlingske Tidende, addressing the serious societal challenge and concern of stress and exam anxiety among students. Pernille’s research supports what the media was reporting that there is a widespread experience of anxiety around exams, and that grades for many becomes a source of excessive pressure. In the article she emphasized that this has to be seen as a problem within the culture, leading her to raise an important question: "How can educational institutions, including teachers, fellow students, and administrative staff, help to create a culture that can prevent exam anxiety from becoming such a major problem that anti-anxiety drugs are needed?" Pernille argues that if the current culture creates an environment where exam anxiety is common, to different degrees, then part of the solution needs to be a change in this culture towards more safe and relaxed study communities. From a deeper understanding of the reasons to why large numbers of students experience stress, part of this research project is also to find out which kinds of measures and initiatives that can help to prevent it.

When performance and perfection becomes a challenge

The theme of pressure from grades and exam anxiety has shown to be one of the major causes and concerns in interviews and surveys conducted among CBS students for this research project. One reason for this is the existence of a “performance and perfection culture” (præstationskultur/perfektionskultur), which makes less acceptance off and room for difficulties, mistakes, and failure as a natural part of learning and growing. There is nothing wrong with having high ambitions or students motivated to perform at their best. The challenge is if the focus within a study culture is too narrowly focused on ideals of high or “perfect” performance, then it can produce a stress inducing environment where many students can feel a significant pressure to live up to unrealistic ideals. This can for example show up in relation to grades, feelings of having to be on top of everything all the time, holding back questions in class, high levels of anxiety around exams, and generally keeping one’s concerns to oneself. In a setting where ideals of performance and perfection dominates unhealthy competition and unconstructive comparison between people are more likely to arise as a consequence. In other words, it increases the fear of failure and creates more worry around exposing one’s difficulties and insecurities, which all are natural and important parts of being in a learning environment.

Interesting indications from student polls

Pernille is ongoing conducting small polls on specific themes related to the research results among students at CBS. Below are some results concerning experiences related to exams. It is remarkable to notice that 93% of the asked students find it hard to talk about bad exam-related experiences. It is therefore also not surprising that in a earlier survey poll among 187 Cand.soc. students, 94% said that it was a relief, when other students spoke about their study related difficulties. It shows that there is a need for an environment where students naturally feel safe and motivated to share also the difficult experiences related to exams and their study life in general. At the moment, that is not the norm. It seems that when students speak up and share their worries and difficulties, it is in fact not only helpful for themselves but just as much for other students. Interestingly, the surveys show that it is not all kinds of sharing that is experienced as helpful. When it comes to being asked directly into one's exam preparation or if other students give unsolicited advice, the surveys show that the students are divided on whether that feels helpful. Lastly, it can be seen that grades and exam experiences for many students can feel like a personal critique and lead to a feeling of not being good enough. Despite being well prepared, 90% said that they are afraid of not doing well enough to the exam. 64% said that they might take it personally, if they feel that they did not live up to their own or others' expectations about an exam, and in the case of getting a worse grade than expected, 88% said that this may make them feel like they are not good enough.
Results from Instagram-polls with CBS students 1. It can be uncomfortable if others ask about my exam preparation
Yes: 59% (29) No: 41% (20)
2. I can feel completely blank when I have to start preparing for an exam
Yes: 76% (41) No: 24% (13)
3. I found myself more knowledgeable of a subject than I initially thought once I started preparing for the exam
Yes: 67% (28) No: 33% (14)
4. Although I feel well prepared, I am afraid of not doing well enough on the exam
Yes: 90% (38) No: 10% (4)
5. It can be helpful if a fellow student asks how I feel about my exam preparation
Yes: 53% (16) No: 47% (14)
6. I do not want unsolicited advice from my fellow students
Yes: 54% (13) No: 46% (11)
7. I often take it personally if I cannot live up to my own or others' expectations about my exam
Yes: 64% (23) No: 36% (13)
8. If I get a worse grade than expected, I may feel like I am not good enough
Yes: 88% (30) No: 12% (4)
9. It can be hard to talk about bad exam-related experiences
Yes: 93% (27) No: 7% (2)

Summing up some of the main issues

  • Many students worry if they are doing good enough in their exam preparation. In particular for new students it can be hard to know how to go about the exam preparation and what is expected at a given examination. This can create a feeling of insecurity and, despite being well prepared, a fear of not doing well enough.
  • In an environment with a performance and perfection culture, it is less common to talk about when things are difficult or does not work out. Many students feel a pressure to get very high grades and generally be on top of everything, including being socially active and having career-advancing student jobs. Many seem to think, that others have it all under control and manage better than themselves. This it is a myth (of the ideal CBS student), but it is reinforced because these things are not often talked about. Having too high or unrealistic expectations of oneself can lead to anxiety and/or stress.
  • When difficulties are not commonly shared within an environment, but mainly successes, it can lead to worries about not doing well enough and a fear of failure.
  • Getting a worse grade than expected or having a bad exam experience can for many students lead to a feeling of not being good enough and as having failed. It can be experienced as a critique or judgement of the person, rather than of a piece of work in a given situation and moment of time. This put additional pressure on the student in the preparation period as well as exam situation, if it is felt as something personal.
  • There seems to be a belief that high grades are paramount for a good career. This over-emphasis on grades as the most important aspect of securing good jobs in the future, leads to increased pressure around exams and grades.

Important take-aways

  • It is common and very natural to feel some insecurity around exams and getting grades. If you feel this way, you are not alone, and this is important to know.
  • Things get easier with time and practice. Many students share that they become more comfortable with exams with time. Both because they have developed routines and techniques for exam preparation, leading them to trust more in themselves, but also because having taken a row of exams gives experience and better understanding of what is expected.
  • Talk to your fellow students about your exam related difficulties and concerns. You are not alone in experiencing them. Many feel that it can be hard to talk about, but also that it is a relief when other students share such experiences.
  • It is good to have ambitions and motivations to perform well, the question is merely to find a healthy balance for where the demands become too high or unrealistic.
  • It is a natural part of life that things sometimes don’t work out as we wish. Difficulties, challenges, and failures are natural components of learning and taking on new tasks. Learning how to manage that is an important skill and will be of high value at the work market.
  • In the modern work life grades are not everything. Personality, motivation, and human skills are as important. 

Last updated by: Anne Sofie Fischer 16/12/2021