From education to employment

Examination stress: a mental toughness perspective

Bert Buckley, Director, Icaras Consulting

It is that time of year when all of the effort put into teaching and learning comes to fruition – examination and assessment season.  I can’t think of many things more stressful than walking into a large hall for an important exam and seeing rows of individual desks laid out spaced apart, the invigilators shouting instructions and marshalling people to their seats. The thought of it is enough to give anyone a cold shiver. 

Assessment is a stressful process, with much riding on how well people perform in exams. Some people seem to be much better at coping with the pressure than others, the nervousness actually helping them to perform at their best. Others cope less well, experiencing a range of symptons from mild nervousness to out-and-out panic attacks; from”blanking out” on some questions, despite having thoroughly revised the topic, to physical sickness, with a few becoming so overwhelmed that they pass out and require medical assistance.

The longer term effects of examination stress can include depression, low self-esteem, anger and a feeling of hopelessness. Individuals can feel helpless to change their situation, berating themselves about their symptoms and poor performance.  It can become so severe that the learner  may not turn up for exams and, in effect, drop out in order to avoid the source of their fear.  Many turn to substance abuse as they attempt to self-treat their anxiety by taking prescription medications and/or alcohol in attempt to deal with the emotional turmoil they are experiencing.

Sixth form centres in colleges and schools are very well-equipped to support learners in revision strategies and techniques, but less so in helping learners to manage their anxieties about examinations and other stressful assessment activities such as delivering presentations or completing practical assessment tasks. Counselling teams can be very busy, but often, teachers and tutors are unaware that some learners are more susceptible to stress and anxiety, and that it can become extremely debilitating. 

In the recent report on the 2011 riots, the authors reported  “Many young people the Panel met expressed a sense of hopelessness. However, others, sometimes in the same school class, expressed optimism, self-sufficiency and a belief that their circumstances could be overcome. The Riots Panel identified building personal resilience and hopes and aspirations as areas to be addressed.

The capacity to ‘respond to stress, pressure and challenge … irrespective of prevailing circumstances’  is mental toughness (Clough and Strycharczyk, 2006), a sporting concept that has made the transition to business and education.  Recent research into mental toughness shows that people can learn to cope.  Neuroscience research has found that when we’re distressed, there is heightened activity on the right side of the pre-frontal area of the brain.  Everyone has a characteristic preference of left/right brain activity that predicts their daily mood range. A preference to the right means you’re more likely to experience more upsets; if to the left, quicker recovery from distress of all kinds.  Studies have shown it is possible to develop new neural pathways, effectively re-programming an individual’s response to stress.

Identifying low mental toughness

A mental toughness questionnaire, the MTQ48, provides an insight into an individual’s capacity to cope with pressure and stress under 4 dimensions: control, confidence, challenge and commitment. From responses to 48 easy to understand statements on a five point Likert scale, it generates an overall score for mental toughness and scores for each of the 4 components.  Studies carried out in schools, colleges and universities in the UK and in Holland show that there is a close link between mental toughness and the performance of young people in exams and tests, with around 25% of the variation in performance explained by mental toughness. Further studies have shown that it is possible to develop a person’s mental toughness which then results in improvements in things like attendance, engagement in learning and self-management.  Tutorial activities can then be designed, which help develop the requisite mental toughness dimension in which individuals have low scores.

The questionnaire takes around 7-8 minutes to complete online and results are available almost immediately, with printable reports for discussion with tutors.  If completed at the start of a programme of learning, the results would help tutors to identify those learners with low scores and enable them to design appropriate tutorial interventions which develop mental toughness across all of the 4 dimensions. The measure is very accurate at predicting which students are most at risk of underperforming, dropping out or failing to complete their course of study; higher levels of mental toughness are associated with improved employability and a person’s ability to get a job and, perhaps more importantly, a job that they really want.

To help those facing examinations now, tutors and teachers could include some basic relaxation techniques in their revision and exam preparation sessions, to help learners to manage the physiological symptoms of stress and anxiety. Simple breathing techniques can be learned very quickly and, when practised sufficiently before exams, can calm the mind, slow the heart rate and apply brakes to the racing thoughts that impair concentration.

Bert Buckley, Director, Icaras Consulting

About Bert: He is dedicated to helping organisations, individuals and teams to ‘build their wings and fly’ to achieve outstanding performance by identifying and releasing hidden talent and latent capability.  His work evolved from an obsession with identifying and celebrating outstanding teaching and learning


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