Saturday, June 20, 2015

Exam Stress!

By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia) - School days may well be the most traumatic days of your life. That is what it seems after hearing reports of how some students are tensely sitting the final unitary state exams in Moscow. At this moment in time, thousands of students are undergoing the ordeal of sitting exams, which they perceive as rigidly determining their very destiny. Passing them means a promising future of entering the best institutes and attaining the best jobs; failing them can lead to doing dull dead end jobs. From a limited school-student perspective, it almost seems as if life is reduced to performing in an exam with an all or nothing outcome. No wonder some of the more sensitive souls crack up not just during an exam but after them.

Only yesterday a teacher colleague, Oksana, informed me that, 'Students at my school are finding those exams very stressful ... I heard that one of my students fainted in the exam room and then a school student informed me one of my students experienced a heart attack in the classroom. They had to call an ambulance '.

I retorted with, 'Come on! Maybe the pupil just fainted?'

These reports may well be just hearsay, gossip or rumours. They do however capture the tense atmosphere of the exams.

Perhaps those just extreme examples reveal how some students take things too hard.

I remember two years ago I used to teach students near the notorious high-rise story building House number 16/1 in Osennei street, in the Krilatskoy district of Moscow. It was reputed to be the building with the highest suicide rate in Moscow. The building seemed to be swallowing its tenants. This building distracts attention from other parts of the district where the suicide rate is also quite high.

Despite attempts to explain away those deaths as 'adolescent problems', drug-taking and the mystical shadow of a curse, it turned out that some of the cases were connected to the stress of poor exam results. One school which had a high rate of suicide among its pupils was explained by a 'strict marking system'. I will never forget
the words of one school student, 16-year-old Nadia, when she told me she could identify with those students . She stated, 'I understand them. I, too, would kill myself if I were in their shoes. If you fail those exams, there is no future. If you don't do well in those  exams how can you enter university, get a good job and move away from your parents? If you fail those exams you are trapped'. The words took me back.


What is making the exams a more tense ordeal is the constant surveillance of cheating which automatically presumes a pupil is a potential cheat, untrusted exam marking and  constantly changing criteria for marking exams such as having to write a composition in the Russian language and a new speaking test in the English exam. The school students speak not to a teacher but to a computer screen which records them. Final year results are being assessed not so much by teachers but computers. But
computers have already been making mistakes and some pupils who gave mainly correct answers in, say a Russian literature test are unsure how they can appeal or whether a teacher can double check this.


What can teachers do about student stress? They can do quite a lot if they intervene at the apt moment! I can make the following three suggestions -

1. The first thing you have to encourage students to question is how they perceive doing exams and life itself in a wider context.

This is because some of those students perceive life in a narrow, limited and extreme way. They think exam outcomes are 'an all or nothing affair'. In life, I am either 'a total loser or total winner'.

But this is surely a narrow and misleading view of life. It drastically limits your possibilities from the beginning. The fact is that nobody is a total loser or winner. We are all doomed to fail in something.

As one teacher told me, 'If you fail your exams it is not the end of the World'. There is also more to life than sitting exams. So the first thing to do is to change dangerously limited perceptions of life. Avoid seeing life in narrow 'totalities'. School is not just about acquiring facts about nature and passing exams, but about developing your moral and spiritual level. If you don't do this at school there is
always time to do it after. Who would you rather spend time with?

Would you prefer to be with a selfish, affluent, arrogant and highly educated successful pupil or a pupil who has failed all his exams but is a caring, helpful person prepared to help anyone in trouble?

Most people would warm to the latter. The main goal of any
education system should be to try and inspire them into becoming good spiritual beings. The teacher should not preach but rather tactfully suggest how some people perceive life from many other views which have never been explored before. So the student learns that there is more than just one choice or possibility.

For example, we might suggest to students not to take life too seriously, especially exams. Which is more critical to you; passing an exam or helping a lonely person dying of cancer in a hospice?

Learning to listen and aid other people is more important than passing exams.

2.We might suggest the following question for pupils and teachers to discuss; Which is more important; knowledge or love? Can anyone accurately define what love is? For example, should we read Fromm's 'The art of Loving' , Buddha or the Bible? All those questions do not require yet another subject in Russian schools but can be encompassed by the course in Russian literature. After all, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov were fearlessly confronting those deep issues.

When a pupil learns to perceive the World with different eyes a whole weight might just fall off his shoulders. He might just grasp that there are different ways of perceiving and reacting to the World around them. Even the bars of an iron cage can rust and allow you to walk out.

3. Try to enjoy the exam! Instead of looking on exams as stressful, try to see them as an exciting challenge just like a game. If you have studied well for exams then enjoy showing off your knowledge. This of course presumes the students likes his subject or feels confident in it. You might see solving maths problems as delightful puzzles.

Although the last suggestion might not work in all cases, it is worth looking at not only the most negative aspects of stress but the more positive. Sitting an exam is not just a test in knowledge but how you handle stress!  So we have to learn to fail well without angst and anger.

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