Guest post: ‘Train Hard, Fight Easy’ or How to deal with Exam Stress and become an Exam Machine – Part 1

Stress seems to be a problem that is everywhere these days. Its implications for individuals are widely appreciated, but perhaps less well-understood. In this guest post, Adam Bantick discusses the causes of exam stress, and in part 2 he will examine strategies for addressing it.

He would like to hear the thoughts and experiences of others on this subject and can be reached via the comments column.

Adam teaches History at Colchester Sixth Form College.

We all know that exams are stressful, and so if we can find ways to overcome these stresses, then we should be able to train our students to become better at exams. A frequent comment from those tasked with dealing with the stress of life-or-death situations, from the police to the armed forces, is that ‘and then my training kicked in’. This article aims to explain what Exam Stress is, how it can be dealt with, and how to train our students to become Exam Machines. Part 1 explains what Exam Stress is, and Part 2 explains how to deal with it.

The problem is that exams are stressful situations, and the human body reacts to stressful situations in particular ways. Although much has been written about students feeling stressed before exams, and how teachers can help their students to deal with these stresses, these are mostly about mental health or a ‘how to revise’ strategy. Little has been written about what actually happens during an exam and how these stresses impact on student performance. Sometimes students remember enough to tell us afterwards, but other times they appear shell-shocked and unable to remember anything about the exam.

We need to understand what exams are, as well as what happens when we take them. Exams can be defined as time-limited, high stakes (pass/ fail/ graded), and taken solo. For these reasons, they are usually stressful – which manifests itself in a number of ways such as feeling sick, sweaty palms, needing the toilet, being thirsty, unable to concentrate, unable to remember…

Our brains have evolved to deal with stressful situations, but with the consequences listed above. A simplified explanation (Horvath and Lodge 2016), is that the brain has three parts which interact together. The Hypothalamus bridges the emotions and physical senses, and connects to the endocrine system controlling the flow of hormones in the body.

The Hippocampus stores information, and is very important for learning and retrieval of facts and concepts. The Pre-Frontal Cortex is the rational part of the brain. It includes Working Memory (holding and using information in the brain), Impulse Control (controlling outward physical behaviour), and Decision Making (choosing which response to give).

When a Threat is identified, two kinds of thinking are used, depending on the threat level. If a Mild Threat is encountered e.g. crossing a busy road, the brain uses Cold Cognition, where the brain perceives the threat level to be low. The Hypothalamus produces small amounts of stress hormones, but the Hippocampus and Pre-Frontal Cortex operate as normal. If a Serious Threat is encountered e.g. driving test, the brain uses Hot Cognition, where the brain perceives the threat level to be high. The Hypothalamus floods the body with the stress hormones Cortisol and Norepinephrine. Cortisol in the Hippocampus stops the neurons in the brain from communicating with each other, stopping memory retrieval. Norepinephrine in the Pre-Frontal Cortex prevents the neurons from working together, and affecting the ability to speak, write etc. The brain is shutting down non-essential functions in order to meet the Serious Threat. The Cold Cognition-driven Pre-Frontal Cortex has been supplanted by the Hot Cognition-driven Hypothalamus, affecting the ability to think straight, recall information, and write it down accurately – thus, poor exam performance.

The effects of Cognitive Stress are widely known, with most people familiar with the idea of ‘Fight or Flight’, where we either physically deal with the Serious Threat or run for our lives from it. As fighting a battle is about as stressful as it gets, soldiers have to confront this situation in their day jobs.

Military psychologist Leo Murray (‘Brains and Bullets’ 2013) identified not just Fight or Flight, but two other conditions as well – the ‘Four F’s’. Fight is where the body prepares for a physical encounter by using adrenaline to prime the muscles for action, by giving the feeling of extra strength and damping pain by narrowing blood vessels. Flight is where the adrenaline prepares the muscles to flee. In both cases, the body shuts down non-essential functions, such as food digestion, by re-directing blood flow to essential organs such as the lungs – sufferers feel ‘butterflies’ or nausea in their stomachs. Freeze is where the brain cannot decide whether to fight or flee, and sufferers are ‘caught like a rabbit in the headlights’, and do nothing – often appearing zombiefied. Fussing is where the brain moves on from Freeze, but not enough to do anything. The sufferer will ‘fuss’ over things that are trivial but well-learnt, such as re-checking equipment that does not need checking (micro-managing).

In addition to the Four Fs, Murray also identified Thinking Straight and Seeing Straight as problems. Thinking Straight is where the brain prevents rational thinking by cutting out new information/ short-term memory, and reverting back to older, long-term memory. In Murray’s observations, sufferers would blank out new instructions and follow older plans, despite the fact that they had been told of changes to the plan. Seeing Straight is where stress produced shut-downs of perception and senses, such as blurred vision, time speeding up or slowing down, or decrease in motor-skills. Depending on the gravity of the Stress Threat we face, we all respond in some form of the Four Fs and Thinking/ Seeing Straight, and we can see how that would play out in an exam that we found particularly stressful, with faster heart rate, feeling sick, sweating, time-speeding up, inability to remember ‘known’ facts, reversion to pre-prepared answers, going blank, doodling on the paper…

As well as the ways that stress affects our thoughts and behaviour, there are other, more education/ exam focused issues for us to consider. Dave Putwain (2008) has discussed Test Anxiety and Exam Stress, although there are similarities between them. Test Anxiety can be described as the way that we feel about the idea of exams in general.

A Test Anxious person will see exams as a Serious Stress Threat. The sufferer will fear failure, and being judged by others as a failure. This fear of failure will transmit to fear for the future, where no exam passes = no job. This fear will result in a negative spiral of self-doubt and self-fulfilling prophecy, and so the sufferer will procrastinate to put off the inevitable failure. Exam Stress can be described as the way we feel about the current exam or round of exams.

The Exam Stress sufferer will face having to do lots of exams in a short space of time, exam season will impact on social life/ eating and sleeping patterns, this particular high-stakes exam fear (‘If I fail this exam I will be thrown out of 6th Form’), and judgements from peers, teachers and parents. Putwain says that Test Anxiety and Exam Stress have particular effects on individuals.

‘Catastrophising’ is where the sufferer cannot get a sense of perspective about exams, and the slightest problem is seen as a catastrophe e.g. ‘I cannot answer Question 2, so I will fail this exam, then I will not get a job and I will die in a ditch’. ‘Selective Abstraction’ is where the sufferer focuses only on the negative things, and ignores what has gone well e.g. ‘I may have done Question 1 ok, but I’ll fail Question 2’. ‘Behavioural problems’ are where the Hot Cognition problems kick in, and ‘Personalising’ is where the sufferer feels that failing exams is just another thing that they fail at in life e.g. ‘I am the most stupid person in the world’.

So far, we have discussed why exams are stressful and how they affect our performance. In Part 2 we will discuss what we can do about these stresses and even turn them to our advantage to perform better.

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