Exam Psychology

Exams are stressful because they play a critical and often controversial role in education and society.  While many would argue that the ‘formative’ value of exams and assessment is often understated or underplayed, the ‘summative’ value of exams focuses attention on the end results

And it is not as simple as final or ‘leaving’ exams presenting a record of achievement’, exam results have come to play important roles beyond the use of such results for teaching purposes in schools.  College admissions / course preference decision making and job selection are prime examples of strictly ‘non-educational’ users of exam results.  That said, colleges would argue that the advantages of using exam results in admissions decision making is in fact ‘educational’ and based on the selection of those students likely to perform best in college courses.

Exam skills can be learned and can make a difference to how exam takers perform in exams.  Exam skills range across preparation beforehand to performance in the exam hall.

Exam anxiety and stress is a real experience for many students.  The psychology of performance suggests that a little anxiety is a good thing, but too much gets in the way of maintaining the ability to perform to one’s ability.

Most sports players are now exposed to sports psychology and its focus on facilitating better performance through understanding and managing anxiety and stress and its relationship with the process of performance.

So the answer is YES.  The exposure, experience, and reaction to exam anxiety and stress can be changed significantly and for the better, allowing students to perform to their ability.

It is vitally important to study and prepare as well as possible for an exam.

But studying to achieve understanding and mastery of course content is not a guarantee of being able to do justice to hard work and preparation when it comes to delivering in an exam room.

So studying may be thought of as a necessary but not sufficient factor in exam performance.

A host of factors that influence exam performance comes into play as the exam nears, as you enter the exam room, and as you turn over the exam paper to see the challenge facing you under exam conditions:  perhaps dealing with your expectations and pressures attaching; perhaps dealing with anxiety levels that are too high; perhaps dealing with concentration issues arising from anxiety, tiredness, or other factors; perhaps dealing with personal problems going on in your life outside of school and the exam process; perhaps dealing with time constraints; perhaps dealing with a poor understanding of exam management and performance under pressure.

Sports psychology has come to be an accepted and much sought after input for athletes – both amateur and, significantly, professional -struggling less with their ability to ‘do’ their sport but with their ability to perform when it matters:  in a real race; when the penalty is to win a match or a cup final; when a double fault will lose a match point; when the three-foot putt is for a championship.

The psychology of exams is every bit as helpful as sports psychology when it comes to ‘performing’ under exam conditions.

Exams and Assessment

Traditionally exam performance is equated with achieving grades or results in exams.  An alternative perspective would be that exam performance is doing as well in exams as students are able.

However, with exams proving so challenging and with their results used for important and life-determining purposes (e.g., college admissions, job selection), the pressure to ‘perform’ in exams remains one of the dominant and recurring themes in exam discussions.

Assessment broadly serve two purposes:  (i) formative – allowing the assessment of learning during the course and with the results serving as feedback to both students and teachers; and (ii) summative – allowing the assessment of achievement over a full course of study and at the end of the course, providing a ‘summary’ of learning as measured in specific ways.

Come January every year and perhaps more dependable that the seasons, exam season comes strongly into focus.  The holiday season is over and the run in to summer exams begins to focus the minds of students, parents, and families.

The late winter and early spring mornings will see articles in all forms of media, both here in Ireland and internationally.  Even the Financial Times gets involved and articles on exam pressures on students and families all over the world are regular features at that time of year.

Exams by their nature have many pitfalls and performance in exams is affected by factors such as ability, demeanour, study, preparation, and stress levels.

Exam takers can make mistakes in preparing their subject material.  Misread exam questions are a common problem.  Providing incorrect or incomplete answers are also common issues.  Running out of time is a frequent experience for exam takers.  Question selection, time allocation, and mark ‘harvesting’ can affect performance and the results achieved in exams.

The history of education suggests that once exam results are being used to make important life decisions, the exam system will exert significant pressure on how education works and how it impacts on students.

The civil service entrance and promotion exam system in China two millenia ago was already a very refined exam system and historic accounts of its operation – as in ‘China’s Examination Hell’ – detail profound effects on students, families, and communities.

So the challenges posed by exams are both international and somewhat timeless, in spite of on-going attention to reform how exams work and their role in the education system.

Leaving Cert

Each and every year some 55,000 plus students take the Leaving Cert.  And another 55,000 plus students enter Fifth Year and the first year of the two year Leaving Cert cycle.  That is 110,000 plus families engaged at any one time with the Leaving Cert!

Very often, parents say that ‘we’re doing the Leaving’.  And in truth, they are right!

The Leaving Cert very often consumes not only the attention and energy of the student, it often dominates the family year.

The Leaving Cert can create anxiety and stress for many parents.  While some parents might create additional pressure to perform, most parents simply want their sons and daughters to achieve what they are capable of.  But the pressure of exam results, CAO points, and seemingly life-influencing decisions can test the resolve and patience of even the most settled families.

The Leaving Cert or Leaving Certificate to give it its full name is Ireland’s national exam taken at the end of second-level (secondary) education.  The Leaving Cert is a subject-based exam and now with an extensive number of subjects on offer.

The Leaving Cert is described as an ‘external’ ‘terminal’ examination.  The tag ‘external’ signifies that the exam is external to the school, with the Leaving Cert now being administered by the State Examination Commission.  The tag ‘terminal’ signifies that the exam occurs at the end of the Leaving Certificate course taken at school and it is designed to assess achievement across the entire syllabus set out for the subject in question.

Both the Leaving Cert and the Junior Certs are particular types of assessment.  Both exams are designed to assess learning across a defined syllabus typically taken over a perdiod of time in second-level education – three years for the Junior Cert and two years for the Leaving Cert.

Leaving Cert results have a long history of use in decisions about third-level or college admissions in Ireland.  Our own published research indicates that there were several progressions along the way to the current Points System that is tied to results in exams over six Leaving Cert subjects.  The Leaving Cert and the derived Points score (to a max of 600 plus possible bonus of 25, giving an actual max of 625) are widely regarded as the fairest benchmarks for decision-making in College admissions.

Our own published research has looked also at the use of Leaving Cert results in college admissions and at the relative merits of the Leaving Cert versus other options favoured elsewhere (e.g., the Scholastic Aptitude Test – or SAT – in the US).