Healthy Mind

Stress: What Effect Does it Have on Exam Performance?

First of all, what is stress? Stress is simply the body’s non-specific response to any demand made on it. Stress is not, by definition, totally synonymous with nervous tension or anxiety.

Stress also provides the means to express talents and energies and pursue happiness; it can also cause exhaustion and illness, whether that be physical or psychological. The important thing to remember about stress is that certain forms are normal and essential.

It’s safe enough to say that most of us have suffered from stress at one point or another during our college life, but just when does it transform from a rare occurrence to a feature that dominates our daily lives?

Exam periods are a key time that stress arises for most students. Attempting to combine years of hard work and study into a handful of two and three-hour segments is a thankless task and is made no easier by the pressure placed on students to succeed.

At this stage when exams are nearly here, doing too much study is counter-productive. Research has shown that cramming, or last-minute revising, is not productive to even short-term knowledge gain.

Research shows that these factors will make studying for that all-important exam even more stressful, so try and avoid them.

Pulling “all-nighters”

Many students find themselves staying up all night trying to study and going through the next day exhausted. Do the benefits of an all-night study session outweigh the sleepiness and fuzzy thinking that generally appear the next day? Recent research says no.

According to a US study, the academic performance of those who stayed up all night went down hill. Research also found that most students didn’t stay up all night studying because they had to, they did it because it was ‘kind of fun’ or a rite of passage. In other words, if you stay up studying half the night before an exam, you are less likely to pass.

Too much caffeine

This may seem like a good way to encourage your body to keep up its energy levels, but this can backfire too. Caffeine may give your energy levels a temporary jolt, but that later leaves you feeling completely drained.

Studies show that students who consume energy drinks may also experience headaches or even heart palpitations.

Also, caffeine stays in your system for longer than you may expect. This may interfere with your sleeping pattern, leaving you exhausted rather than refreshed in the morning.
Steering clear of alcohol is a good idea if exam stress is to be avoided. Some students resort to having a drink to relax when their study day is over or after they have completed an exam.

While relaxing in company offers a welcome break from the seemingly endless study cycle, drinking alcohol depresses the nervous system, leaving the body lacking vital minerals and vitamins. This can lead to irritability, which will only increase stress.

Research shows that students who sleep and eat well regularly tend to perform best in exams. Taking regular breaks allows the brain to process the information it has received and gives the body some much needed fresh air and exercise.

Other stresses

There are also many miscellaneous stresses that often come from college life. Many students have a hectic lifestyle; from staying up late to study, getting up early for classes and trying to cram in all the work and fun that they can possibly fit.

Often the logistics of living more independently can cause more stress. Also think about social stress, weight issues and financial issues. One survey of 3,500 undergraduate and masters students found that one in three run out of money on a regular basis, subsequently increasing their stress levels.

The question then arises if too much pressure is being put on students to succeed in exams?

“I think a little stress is good,” says Aoife, a student in Griffith College Dublin. “For me, personally I tend to thrive on that bit of stress and adrenalin coming up to exams, but that’s only if it’s in small doses.”

However there is also the flip side of the coin. “I stopped eating and sleeping at one stage because the pressure and stress just got too much,” says a DIT student who didn’t wish to be named. “I became so anxious that I considered dropping out of the year, but I managed to get through them in the end. Once the exams were over, I felt the pressure ease off.”

“I think exam stress is largely a bad thing,” says John, a Dublin Business School student. “I think it is good to have goals and deadlines for assignments, but the pressure and feeling of the majority of your semester’s performance being based on a two hour exam seems extreme. I’d love for the year to be largely continuous assessment with smaller weighting on the final exam.”

A lot of students respond to the stress of sitting exams by blindly studying harder and harder, with less returns and increasing stress. Taking regular exercise breaks best breaks this circle. Getting some fresh air and exercising are some of the best relievers of stress known.

For everyone taking an upcoming exam, it is important to remember that your whole future does not hang on the basis of these results. There is always the possibility of repeating the exam if you do not get the grade you desire the first time around and you may find that all sorts of other exciting opportunities will arise as well.

Good luck everyone!