May 15, 2019


Are we teaching children to be afraid of exams? Reports suggest many Australian children are forgoing Year 12 exams because they are too stressful.


Mandie Shean, Edith Cowan University

Some Australian students are reportedly shunning Year 12 exams in favour of more favourable, and less stressful, pathways to finishing school. These reports come amid warnings of rising rates of anxiety and depression among young people, with psychologists calling for better mental health support services in schools. Experts say exam stress could be making depression and anxiety worse for vulnerable young people.

Websites set up to support youth mental health use words such as “survive” when it comes to Year 12. Others refer to exam time = stress time.

Exams are certainly challenging. But our rhetoric may be having an impact on the way young people perceive exams. In our efforts to support young people, we may be teaching them to be afraid rather than encouraging them to see exams as a positive challenge.

Anxiety in adolescence

Researchers have for decades considered adolescence to be a stressful time, but it appears the mental health of young Australians has worsened in recent years. Just over 40% of Australian youth indicated mental health was their greatest issue in the 2018 youth survey conducted by Mission Australia. One in four had a probable serious mental-health issue.

Mission Australia’s survey relies on self-reports of young people aged 15-19. The 2018 survey also showed young people’s main concerns were coping with stress (43%) and school (34%). In another survey conducted by mental-health organisation ReachOut, 65.1% of youth reported worrying levels of exam stress in 2018, compared to 51.2% in 2017.

Despite these troubling reports, an analysis of several studies on the prevalence of anxiety actually suggests there has been no such increase. The authors note:

The perceived ‘epidemic’ of common mental disorders is most likely explained by the increasing numbers of affected patients driven by increasing population sizes. Additional factors that may explain this perception include […] greater public awareness, and the use of terms such as anxiety and depression in a context where they do not represent clinical disorders.

This means while some young people have serious anxiety issues, others may be perceiving normal levels of stress as anxiety. And this may have some significant side effects.

Read more:
How to overcome exam anxiety

Perception matters

In psychology, appraisal theory posits that our emotional response to an event is determined by our evaluation, or appraisal, of it. Knowing what our appraisal is of a situation helps us determine if it is a threat, if we have sufficient resources to deal with it and, ultimately, if something harmful or bad will happen to us.

In a 2016 US study of appraisals, students in one group were told emotional arousal before an exam was normal and would better help them face a challenge. Another group, the control group, wasn’t provided with any strategies.

Our appraisal of a situation in many ways determines how we will feel in that situation.
from shutterstock.com

Despite all students sitting the exam, researchers found the first group experienced less anxiety and performed better than the second group. They argued the reduced stress was due to the first group appraising their elevated heart rates and other anxiety signs as functional, rather than threatening. So this showed it was the appraisal of students’ feelings that determined how stressed they actually were rather than the event itself.

Appraisals are influenced by the things we value and what we believe to be at stake. Exams might be appraised as “stressful” because youth perceive them as a threat to their future, such as their ability to get a job.

In some cases, exams can be a threat to students’ self-worth. Self-worth is the belief our life has value and is a strong predictor of well-being. If self-worth is tied to academic success it is at risk, as academic success becomes critical for the young person – almost a matter of life or death. This increases their perception of exams and academic measures as threatening.

Read more:
Parents, are you feeling the pressure too? Here’s how to help your child cope with exam stress

We need challenges

Challenges are an essential and normal part of our development. Drawing a parallel with immunity, resistance to infections doesn’t come from avoiding all contact with germs. On the contrary, avoidance is likely to increase vulnerability rather than promote resilience.

While we should protect young people from high risk situations, such as abuse and trauma, low-level manageable challenges, such as exams, are known as “steeling events” – they help develop young people mentally and emotionally. Allowing students to avoid exams so they avoid stress might be robbing children of the opportunity to deal with the emotions evoked by the challenge. It also teaches them we don’t think they are capable of meeting the challenge.

Young people need to understand study is something they do, not who they are, or they will be vulnerable in this area.

Young people with a diagnosis of anxiety need clinical support to help them succeed through exam periods. But young people experiencing “normal” exam stress should be provided with strategies to help manage stress. These include self-soothing (such as breathing and listening to music) and acknowledging that negative feelings are a normal response to challenges.

Life can stressful, but it is how we see this stress that creates anxiety. Adults could do well helping your people believe they are not passive recipients of stress, but can decide how they view challenges. They also need to help young people believe they have inner resources to manage stressful situations, and that they are worth something, whatever number they get in exams.

Read more:
High anxiety: how I use mental exercises to ease my fear of flying

The Conversation

Mandie Shean, Lecturer, School of Education, Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

  • I just don’t understand why so many parents put enormous amount of pressure on their kids for year 12 exams. University isn’t the be all and end all of life. There are so many more avenues your kids can take to get what they want if they don’t make uni.


  • The thought of failing something you’ve spent a lot of time on and worked hard for can very extremely stressful. Some students don’t feel as much stress as others, perhaps not as much as someone who NEEDS high grades to get into a particular course. Life is full of stress so I think it’s a good way for parents and teachers to help students deal with the stress in a healthy way that works for them, preparing them for the future.


  • It was terrifying for me as a student and I see my daughters anxiety prior to even a spelling test I don’t know if there is another way but it should be looked into


  • It’s alright to teach them about the importance of trying to do their best and work hard but at the same time, schools really put pressure on kids to finish and go straight to Uni as if it’s the only option?


  • I didn’t realise you could finish year 12 without doing exams. Kids should be taught that if they don’t do well then its not the end of the world.


  • Definitely need to change some of the phrases. There are a lot of issues for kids though and exams are just one.


  • I think too much emphasis is placed on our final year of school. I do believe it is important and that children should understand it’s importance. But I also think that they should know it is not the be-all and end-all. If you don’t get the mark that you want, then there are other avenues in life that you can pursue to get to the same goal, or find another goal.


  • Life is stressful in lots of times. We are raising anxious, stressed kids who can’t problem solve or face a challenge without falling apart. Imagine the leaders in 20 years time!


  • I have this fear and i agree its all about the parents putting pressure on being perfect and the amount of knowledge that needs to be stored.


  • It is not only the parents who put pressure on the kids to do well in getting high marks in their exams. The amount of knowledge to have to remember for each subject is like monsters. The marking system is not always fair. They seem to work on % as much as content sometimes.
    Our brains can only store so much regardless of whether we study just about non-stop. It probably causes extreme fatigue. If you don’t get a very high % score you have no hope of getting into the TAFE or University Degree you want to do. I know a lass missed out on course by a fraction of a very high %. She just scraped through for another choice of career.


  • I have told my big kids that the expectation that I have for them and any exam is they are to show up and do their best. The score means nothing to me but the effort does. I do not make them study from dawn till dusk but i do encourage them to keep asking the teachers for help until they do understand what the task is


  • We always emphasise that it’s only one sign of what you can do.

    • That’s a great thing to tell them. Kids have way too much pressure put On them at such an early age they feel like such a failure as if they get something wrong. They need to understand that they aren’t and are capable of so much more


  • I’ve been reading articles recently about primary school kids freaking out about NAPLAN tests. And I’m shocked. What are these parents telling their kids to make them freak out so much?!


  • Personally I don’t think I’m teaching my kids to be scared of an exam. In our house how you perform is not regarded as that important.


Post a comment
Like Facebook page

LIKE MoM on Facebook

Please enter your comment below
Would you like to include a photo?
No picture uploaded yet.
Please wait to see your image preview here before hitting the submit button.
Your MoM account

Lost your password?

Enter your email and a password below to post your comment and join MoM:

You May Like


Looks like this may be blocked by you browser or content filtering.

↥ Back to top

Thanks For Your Star Rating!

Would you like to add a written rating or just a star rating?

Write A Rating Just A Star Rating