Test obsession and Test Anxiety

Tests anxiety

“We live in a test conscious and test giving culture in which the lives of people are in part determined by their test performance”

Sarason, Davidson, & Lighthall

What’s interesting about this statement is, it was first published in 1960 and was based on students in the US, yet would not seem out of place in describing the situation in the UK.  The UK, as with so many other things has unfortunately caught up with the US and become a nation that tests and measures…everything.

Where a person’s worth is judged only by the tests they have passed it is perhaps not surprising that examination success has become so important and test anxiety increased.

But it’s not just the UK, this is a global obsession, take China for example where the pressure to succeed has become so intense that cheating in the Gaokao, the nation’s A-Chinese-invigilator-sca-010university entrance exam is a major problem. The government has not been slow to react and for the first time anyone found cheating will face a possible seven year jail sentence. In Ruijin, east China’s Jiangxi Province, invigilators use instruments to scan students’ shoes before they entered the exam hall, while devices to block wireless signals are also used to reduce the opportunity to cheat.

Test anxiety or stress

Stress is a broad term that is experienced when you find yourself in adverse or demanding circumstances, sitting an exam perhaps. Test anxiety is a situation specific type of stress, experienced by people who find examinations threatening. Recently, there has been an increased interest in exam stress and test anxiety in the UK and a need for it to be given closer academic scrutiny.

The research so far shows that test anxiety can actually impair learning and hurt test performance. And this is the issue, are students underperforming in examinations, which as stated above can have a significant impact on their lives not because of their lack of knowledge or even their ability to apply knowledge, but simply because the medium used to assess them is an exam.

In simple terms test anxiety effects exams results and exam results play a major part in people’s lives.

There are three components of test anxiety (Zeidner 1998)

  • Cognitive – the negative thoughts you can have during tests e.g. “if I fail this I will fail all my examinations” and the performance limiting difficulties experienced as a result of anxiety e.g. inability to read questions clearly or solve problems.
  • Affective – physical symptoms e.g. trembling, tension etc.
  • Behavioural – test anxiety creates an environment that encourages students to avoid studying or best delay it.

The reason people develop test anxiety is thought to be rooted in certain social issues e.g. how you are judged by others and the fear of failure in the public domain. It may also be related to the type of anxiety people experience when they have to make a best man’s speech, for example. Another aspect is that it is not always what others think, but what you think of yourself that is the issue and so the expectation of exam failure could impact on an individual’s ego and self-esteem.

Phase one is OK BUT

I think in the UK we are through the worst part of this, let’s call it phase one, and by that I mean we know that examinations and testing are not the answer, and that people are not their exam result. We have learned this the hard way by producing groups of exam qualified students, releasing them into the world of work, ill prepared to cope with the demands of the workplace. In addition, we have developed helpful techniques that enable people to better cope with test anxiety. Some of these I have discussed in previous blogs, Stress or Pressure – Don’t let the bridge collapse, Exam stress – Mindfulness and the “7/11” to name but two.

BUT………we still have some way to go with phase two, which involves answering the question, what do we replace exams with if they are so bad? And until we solve that, helping good people perform in the system we have just now is the best we can do.

 

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Stress or Pressure – Don’t let the bridge collapse

Releasing PressureI have long been interested in the way knowledge from one domain can help inform another and have had two very good examples of this recently, both leading in the same direction.

 

 

The first came from an engineering friend of mine who started a conversation about the meaning of stress and pressure in his world. He described stress and pressure as essentially the same except being applied in different forms. Pressure is applied on the external surface of a body, while stress is the internal resistive force per unit area of that body, which resists its elongation or compression.

Alternatively – Stress is generated within the material whereas pressure is the applied force.

The second example came from a stress management seminar* I recently attended, not so abstract you might say but it wasDont let the bridge collapse the analogy the presenter used that was interesting. He asked that we thought of a bridge, the cars going over the bridge created pressure on the bridge and as a result the bridge would experience stress.

No matter how strong the bridge, there was a point that if too many cars were on at any one time it would collapse.

How does this help?

Analogies can be very helpful where it’s difficult to conceptualise or understand complex ideas. For example the bridge will show signs of stress before it collapses. This is no different for people; signs of stress will be present well before the stress levels are high enough to cause problems e.g. short temper, lack of sleep, headaches etc.  Also if we carry on with the analogy, there are two ways in which you can make sure the bridge doesn’t collapse. One, don’t have so many cars on the bridge and two, support the bridge so that it can take more cars. This translates into reducing the number of external pressures you are under (less cars) and having coping strategies to help when you are under pressure (some support).

Pressures when studying

A lot of pressures when studying are time related, for example taking on too many subjects or having to study as well as holding down a responsible job.  But some pressure might be created by the way you feel about yourself, not being capable or clever enough. Also people often put themselves under pressure – interesting term “putting yourself under pressure” by having very high expectations or maybe those expectations are put upon them by others.

The simple answer – take some of the cars off the bridge, reduce the number of subjects your studying, lower your expectations etc. This is not to say that having high expectations is not good, but if it is affecting your performance in a negative way, then you have to do something. And I know it may not be easy to do this in all circumstances; do you step down from that responsible job, how practical is that?  Yet if you do nothing, the bridge will collapse and that has to be avoided at all costs.

The alternative to taking cars off the bridge is to add in extra support.

Strategies to cope

Lazarus and Folkman in 1984 suggested that stress is the result of an “imbalance between demands and resources” or results when “pressure exceeds one’s perceived ability to cope”. They came up with two types of coping responses.

Emotion-focused – These techniques work very well when the stress is or at least appears to be outside the individual’s control.

  • Keep yourself busy to take your mind off the issue – just keep working through the course
  • Let off steam to other students/partners, anyone who will listen in fact
  • Pray for guidance and strength – and why not
  • Ignore the problem in the hope it will go away – not always ideal but the problem may sort itself
  • Distract yourself – go for a run
  • Build yourself up to expect the worse – “I will probably fail anyway”

Problem-focused – These techniques aim to remove or reduce the cause of the stress.  These are similar to taking cars off the bridge.

  • Take control – being out of control is often the cause of much stress. Revaluate what the problem is, and ask is it worth it!
  • Information seeking, perhaps the most rational action. Find out what is causing the problem and look to solve it e.g. why do you have such high expectations, does it help?
  • Make a list, evaluate the pros and cons and put in order of importance.

Studying can be stressful and this can result in feeling under pressure but this is not altogether a bad thing stress and pressure are key motivational forces, so don’t think of stress as the enemy but watch out for any cracks that might appear in the bridge.

Watch this TED – Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend.

Related posts – Exam stress – or is it your stress and Exam stress Mindfulness and the “7/11”

* The course was delivered by the stress management societyclick here for their website.

Sleep is for wimps – oh and successful students

Get some sleepAlthough I am sure someone is preparing for an exam this very minute, July/August are the traditional months to take a holiday and get some well earned rest. A holiday can be exactly what you need especially if you have just come to the end of a long period of study followed by in some instances, weeks of exams.

I have to express a personal bias in so much that I believe holidays are essential if you are to be at your best. For me this years holiday has to provide some degree of relaxation after what has been a particularly busy 6 months. I am looking forward to a change of scene, meeting different people and the freedom to wake naturally, feeling rested after a good nights sleep. Holidays are of course very personal and for some an adventure holiday, travelling to new places every day, might be far more desirable.

But one thing that all holidays should provide is the ability to relax and catch up on sleep, even if that means you climb two mountains, swim for three hours before crashing out in a state of satisfied exhaustion on the evening.

Sleep is essential for learning 

Of course sleep is something you should do “properly” every day, it’s just that we don’t. Modern life steals that vital rest time, this is acutely the case when trying to balance both work and study. Studying is often undertaken on an evening and sometimes late into the night as you effectively try to do, too much in too little time.   We now sleep less than we did 50 years ago, it used to be around 8.5 hours, it’s now only 6.5. The sleep should also be of high quality, yet our sleep is interrupted by the lights of mobile phones, and sounds made when texts arrive late into the night. In order to sleep better it is a good idea to avoid light approximately 30 minutes before going to sleep, yet how many read in bed from iPads or equivalent with the bright light emitted from the screen telling your brain to stay awake.

Why sleep is important

We have known that sleep has been important for many years but we didn’t know why, cognitive scientists now have some of the answers. There are three views as to why sleep is beneficial:

One restoration – some of our genes only turn on when we sleep, their role being to make essential repairs.

Two conservation – we sleep to conserve energy, and

Three consolidation – our brain revisit events and experiences, and begins to make sense of them, moving data into long term memory and solving complex problems.

Susanne Diekelmann at the University of Tubingen in Germany says “sleep helps stabilise the memories and integrate them into a network of long-term memory, it also helps us to generalise what we’ve learnt, giving us the flexibility to apply the skills to new situations. So although you can’t soak up new material, you might instead be able to cement the facts or skills learned throughout the day.”  Bodies need rest – the brain needs sleep Sometimes you may find yourself having to push sleep to one side and in specific situations thats fine.

It’s when lack of sleep becomes the norm that problems arise, the result is greater stress, poor judgement and ineffective learning.   So now the exams are over, take a break, get some quality sleep and try and make a few simple adjustments in you life so that sleep takes more of a priority.

It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.

John Steinbeck  

Music to help you sleep and two video to watch but not just before you go to sleep

TED neuroscientist Russell foster  explains more about why we sleep  

Arianna Huffington talks about the importance of sleep

Thank you for the music – listening to music when revising

May and June are the traditional months when students around the world lock themselves away to revise for their exams.

In China for example over 9 million students will be sitting the university entrance exams.

Last May (2012) Teenagers at Xiaogang school in Hubei province were pictured hooked up to bags of intravenous fluids hanging from the classroom ceiling to boost energy levels during the revision period. An extreme action by anyone’s standards, but perhaps an example of how much pressure students feel this time of year.

As I mentioned in last month’s blog my daughter is currently caught up in this May/June exam frenzy. So once again I found myself looking to her for inspiration. What was she doing, how did she revise? This is not because she is a perfect example of a revision student, in many ways she is not, but I do think she is typical of many.

What does Beth do?

  • Makes notes from her notes – This is a standard exam skill, reducing content down into measurable and personal chunks. She does use mind maps (possibly my influence) but not exclusively.
  • Prepares as if she has to teach someone else – this I find interesting and has certainly not come from me. She writes on a white board the key points as if she was going to teach that subject. I like this idea, as many teachers and lecturers will tell you nothing focuses the mind nor motivates you more than having to teach it to others.
  • Practices past exam questions…of course!
  • Studies while listening to music – now this is the one that intrigued me and as a result I have devoted the rest of the blog to answering the question …..

Is it a good idea to revise whilst listening to music?

As ever the science needs much interpretation.

It’s a bad idea

Researchers from the University of Wales, tasked 25 students with memorising lists of consonants. Some were shown the letters while sitting in silence, others while listening to music by their favourite bands or by groups they had a strong aversion to. The conclusion was that listening to music, hampered their recall.

So it’s good then

Scientists at Stanford University, in California, believe there is a molecular basis for music known as the “Mozart Effect“. It was discovered that rats, like humans, perform better on learning and memory tests after listening to a specific Mozart Sonata in D.

But then there is the evidence that suggests that switching attention when trying to learn as might be the case with listening to music slows down the cognitive process.

Yet you cannot ignore the research that clearly shows music has the ability to alter your brain and induce relaxation which in turn helps create an ideal state for learning.

Watch what happens to your brain when you listen to music.

Hopefully you get the idea.

Conclusions

  • Listening to music puts you into a more relaxed frame of mind and that is of course good for learning. So listening to music before or after revising can help.
  • If you do want to listen to music, avoid music that requires you to shift your attention. This would suggest you should not listen to  music with lyrics  as it can mean you need to think about what is being said nor should you listen to something new that you may not have heard before. This is one of the reasons classical, in particular baroque music is the preferred choice of many students. Also don’t play the music too loud, keep it as background noise.
  • If there are specific facts that you simply need to know, then avoid listening to music completely, give it your full attention. But you can’t concentrate at this level all day, only for short periods.
  • On the whole be consistent don’t keep changing the type of music, you need familiarity.

Music to help you study

The internet has many websites that offer relaxing and helpful music, here are a few that might help.

You have to be joking – learning fun!

A famous scientist was on his way to a lecture in yet another university when his chauffeur offered an idea. “Hey, boss, I’ve heard your speech so many times I bet I could deliver it and give you the night off.” “Sounds great,” the scientist said. When they got to the auditorium, the scientist put on the chauffeur’s hat and settled into the back row. The chauffeur walked to the lectern and delivered the speech. Afterward he asked if there were any questions. “Yes,” said one professor. Then he launched into a highly technical question. The chauffeur was panic stricken for a moment but quickly recovered. “That’s an easy one,” he replied. “In fact, it’s so easy, I’m going to let my chauffeur answer it!”

Okay it might have made you smile rather than laugh out loud and it may not be the best joke you have ever heard, but it will have changed your mood and as a result made you more receptive to learning.

The facts

But how does this work? Dopamine is the chemical neurotransmitter most associated with attention, memory storage, comprehension, and executive function. Research indicates that the brain releases more dopamine when you play, laugh, exercise and listen to stories. (Depue and Collins 1999).

Interestingly making learning fun also reduces stress which can impede the learning process.

During periods of high stress or anxiety, functional MRI studies show increased blood flow to the “emotional” portion of the limbic system. When the amygdala (part of the limbic system) is in this state, neural activity in the rest of the brain is profoundly reduced (Xiao and Barbas 2002; Pawlak et al. 2003).

But learning is not fun!

Of course something that is fun to one person may not be fun to someone else. And what do people do to have fun? One answer to this is they play games, in fact there is a whole industry built around playing games to learn, unsurprisingly and somewhat disappointingly its called game based learning (GBL)

A game is said to have several key elements.

1. Competition – The score keeping element and/or winning conditions motivate the players and provide an assessment of their performance. Note that players are not necessarily competing against each other. In fact, a lot of games have players working as a team to overcome some obstacle or opponent.

2. Engagement – Once the learner starts, he or she does not want to stop before the game is over. This engagement is thought to come from four sources: challenge, curiosity, control, and fantasy.

3. Immediate Rewards – Players receive victory or points, sometimes even descriptive feedback, as soon as goals are accomplished

Can learning be fun, yes of course and making it into a game is a great way of doing it. It might be as simple as writing the questions for a quiz based on a subject to be examined and testing a group of friends. Setting the quiz from a learning perspective is probably better than answering the question. Keep to the rules above though, so make sure you offer a reward.

Also it might be American football, which I have to admit I don’t understand, but if you do you will love Financial Football click here to play, its a free online game with cool graphics that aims to teach money management skills.

Have a revision party

Okay the idea might sound a little of the wall but watch this short video, it looks like fun to me…

Ps the loud one is my daughter.

And the outtakes 

Want to find out more then read this article by Dr. Judy Willis who is an authority in brain research and learning.

And just for fun Dawn French and the accounting joke.

Exam stress – Mindfulness and the “7/11”

I have been aware of the term mindfulness for a few years now, but had struggled to think how it could help with exams.  That was before reading an article in the Guardian, Could beditation be the answer to exam nerves? ‘Mindfulness’ is the latest big thing in schools. What is it and why is it so popular?

In the article they describe two ways in which mindfulness may be used to help with exams. One is called the “7/11” the other bedetation.

  • The “7/11” is a relaxation breathing exercise. Matching the counting to the breath, you breathe in through your nose for a count of seven, and out through your nose for a count of 11. As with many mindfulness techniques this helps focus your attention, in this instance you use the breath as an object of concentration. By focusing on the breath you become aware of the mind’s tendency to jump from one thing to another. The simple discipline of concentration brings us back to the present moment and all the richness of experience that it contains. Watch this video, it shows exactly how to do “7/11” breathing.
  • Beditation is simply the process of meditation whilst lying down. Meditation might sound slightly new world, but it is of course thousands of years old. On one level meditation is a simple yet powerful technique that effortlessly allows your mind to become calm and peaceful. Which is not a bad state to be in when you’re studying or in the exam room.

What exactly is Mindfulness?

Although mindfulness has its roots in eastern philosophy, many acknowledge the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn from the Medical Centre at the University of Massachusetts as being the founder of the modern mindfulness movement. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention, on purpose in the present moment non judgementally.”

If you imagine that there are two modes of attention, thinking and sensing. Attention often gets drawn to what’s wrong, what’s threatening, our attention scans for problems and this is for good reason, it is a primeval survival technique. This triggers the thinking part as you attempt to solve the problem. Now there is nothing wrong with this but the mind needs a balance and there is a time to think and a time to relax and sense.

By moving your attention to the present moment and into the sensing mode you will instantly become more relaxed. The “7/11” breathing and meditation techniques are just ways of helping you do this. Research is showing that there are huge benefits of spending some time in the sensing mode and not in the thinking mode.

Listen to this TED lecture given by Richard Burnett who is the co-founder of the Mindfulness in Schools Project (also known as .b, pronounced “dot b”), whose aim is to introduce mindfulness as a discipline in the school curriculum.

How it helps with exam stress

Stress is often created by thinking what might happen if I fail, what happens if I am not good enough, or can’t answer this question? These are all examples of the thinking state of attention. Now as I have mentioned before in a previous blog, exam stress or is it your stress to feel stressed is a perfectly natural reaction; it is the result of being faced with a challenge that initially at least, looks impossible to overcome. But in an exam it is far from helpful, often cutting off your ability to think straight and sometimes paralysing your actions.

By using the “7/11” breathing techniques before the exam, to help you feel more relaxed, during the exam to stop a panic attack taking over, and even after the exam when you begin to wonder what you should have done but didn’t, can be incredibly helpful.

And meditation can help both in the short and long run, our mental health and intellectual skills are shaped by what we do with our attention, where we place our awareness. And of course intellectual skills are vital not just in the exam but whilst studying as well.

Is it just in the mind?

Brain-imaging studies show that mindfulness meditation can reliably and profoundly alter the structure and function of the brain and produce, for example, greater blood-flow to and a thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotions. As well its impact on specific problems, mindfulness has been shown to have a very positive effect on intellectual skills, improving sustained attention, visual special memory, working memory and concentration

The National Institute for health and care excellence (Nice) are recommending mindfulness.

Watch this short video on more ways that mindfulness may help in exams.

Can ‘Mindful’ meditation increase profits?

And for the more commercial minded of you, it might even help your business increase profits. Watch this to find out more.

 

Exam stress – or is it your stress

There have been a few interesting stories in the news recently that I thought might warrant a blog, not least the results of research undertaken by Roi Cohen Kadosh, a cognitive neuroscientist from Oxford University. He has discovered that if you administer a small electrical charge to the brain it may enhance your ability to process numbers for up to 6 months. But don’t go sticking your fingers into electric sockets just yet. The research is at its early stages and may be more helpful for people with dyscalculia (problems with numbers as dyslexia is for words) rather than not being able to understand calculus.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-11692799

Something closer to home was an on-line presentation I gave last week entitled Exam Confidence. Part of the presentation specifically deals with exam stress, something that many students may be experiencing just at the moment as they begin to realise the November and December exams are just around the corner. The first thing to say is that to feel stressed is a perfectly natural reaction; it is the result of being faced with a challenge that initially at least, looks impossible to overcome. The body’s natural reaction to this is to increase your heart beat and get you ready to hit something or run, the fight/flight principle.  Now a few million years ago this was helpful, but in an exam room….

 Who’s voice is it?

The feeling of stress can be instant or creep up on you over time, but something you may want to think about is, that it is not the object or the event that is creating the stress, it can’t be. It is the way that you look at it and what you think it means. Imagine that you are in the exam hall and you turn over the exam paper, the room is quiet, and you can sense the tension. You look at the question and your first thoughts are that you can’t do it. The little voice inside your head begins to shout YOU CANT DO THIS, YOU WILL FAIL , and IF YOU FAIL YOU WILL NEVER EVER EVER PASS…..YOU ARE A FAILURE

 It‘s not the question that is shouting, it‘s you, and what you say to yourself makes a huge difference to how you feel and the level of stress you will experience.

 Now of course the truth might be that you can’t do it, but the problem with stress is that it will paralyse the logical part of your mind. In these circumstances you are programmed to fight or run, not think. So you need some strategies to cope, to reduce the stress, so that you can at least begin to think about what you can do rather than what you can’t.

 Some coping strategies

1 Recognise that it is your voice and that by changing what you say will change the way you feel. Think more positively, say okay I can’t do this but what can I do?

2 Take a deep breath, look around the room, say to yourself, if I can’t do this then I bet no one else can.

3 Reframe what you see, this is just one question, not the entire exam.

4 Think about the bigger picture, this is just an exam, you can always sit it again, it is not life or death.

5 Focus your attention elsewhere by doing something you can do, no matter how small, a question that only has 5 marks perhaps.

 I may do more on how to cope with stress in future blogs but for now I will leave you with the wise words of psychologist and philosopher William James.

The greatest weapon again stress is our ability to choose one thought over another