Managing exam anxiety
Published 14 December 2022. Written by Chris Worfolk.
Since we added our learning pathways, many students have spoken about their worries regarding taking one of the practitioner exams. In this article, I will discuss some helpful strategies for managing these fears.
Common fears around exams
Some of the common fears students express around exams are clustered around the following themes:
- I will fail the exam
- I am not good enough to take the exam
- Taking the exam is too much work because of all the revising I have to do
- Just taking the exam will cause me a lot of anxiety and that will be uncomfortable
- I must get all of the questions correct and pass first time or I am a failure
- I do not function well under pressure and so the exam will be more difficult for me
Maybe some of these connect with you. Maybe none of them will and your worry is non a different theme. Either way, worry is perfectly normal as we are very good at inventing worries even if we cannot find an obvious one.
Let's break down some of the underlying themes and explore them further.
Fear of failure
Undertaking an exam involves exposing ourselves to the risk of failing. If we couldn't fail, it would not be an exam, merely an exercise in need of completion.
We think the practitioner exam is important for two reasons:
- It ensures a high standard of learning and that people receiving the diploma genuinely know their stuff, which is important to protect future clients if the student goes on to become a practitioner.
- It helps to support the student by proving to them that they do know what they are talking about and have made a substantial commitment to learning that has made them knowledgeable about the subject.
In short, you have to be able to fail the exam so that when you pass it, you have proof that you put in the time end effort and successfully acquired the knowledge.
This is a major upside. But it does mean there is a downside: it is possible to fail the exam, and many students find they spend a lot of time worrying about this.
This is often because students think that failing the exam says something about them. Such thoughts might be "if I fail the exam it is because I am a failure", "if I fail the exam it is because I am stupid" or "if I fail the exam it will prove my parents right about me not achieving anything".
In reality, it says nothing. One exam is one exam and it does not reflect who we are as a person.
If it does say anything, it says that we are willing to take a chance and allow ourselves to be vulnerable in pursuit of our dreams. Taking sensible risks is correlated with success. Even if we did fail, we would define ourselves as someone willing to try something.
A good question to ask ourselves here might be "what if the worst-case scenario came true?"
In this case, the worst-case scenario would be that we fail the exam. It probably wouldn't be a nice feeling. We might feel bad about ourselves and our performance.
However, we could simply study further and retake the exam at a later date. If we later pass, as we likely would, our qualification would be no different to if we passed first time.
Evaluate the gains, too
Opening ourselves up to the possibility of failure opens up another possibility, too. We might pass the exam. If we never take the risk, we never give ourselves the chance to succeed.
When looking at these scenarios, it is easy to zone in on the possibility that we will fail the exam. But we also need to remind ourselves that we might pass the exam and achieve what we want to achieve. Focusing on these potential gains, instead of the drawbacks, can help us put the decision into the wider context of what we want to do with our lives.
Another common problem is the discomfort of having to take an exam: some students experience worry that simply placing themselves under such pressure will be an unpleasant experience and they will not perform at their best.
We will deal with performance below.
A possible reframe for the anticipated anxiety as to view the stress is good stress rather than bad stress. Some people rise to the occasion when placed under stress. But even if we don't, many of us can benefit from exposing ourselves to challenges that we want to undertake.
Consider the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) approach that tells us to build valued goals and take committed action towards them. Doing so generates a fulfilling life, even if it means doing hard things.
Some students may be anxious about how well they will do or hold themselves to a specific standard. Many practitioners feel like they need to be better than their colleagues or know everything there is to know.
In reality, this is a distorted standard to which to hold ourselves. Even the best practitioners do not know everything or drop some marks on an exam.
A question we might ask ourselves here is "is this standard helping or harming my performance?" If we do not feel any stress we may not revise and could well fail the exam. On the other side, if we buy into the idea that we must get 100%, we are likely to paralyse ourselves into indecision and never take the exam. Neither of these extremes is helpful.
Many students worry about taking an exam because of a fear of failure, that they are not good enough or that it would only be a success if they held themselves to an unrealistically high standard.
In reality, growth comes from allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. To open ourselves up to the possibility of failure and say to ourselves "I might fail, but that says nothing about me other than I was brave enough to try".
Failing an exam is one step on the journey. We can learn something and try again. Being willing to take this risk opens us up to another possibility: the possibility of succeeding. When that is something we truly care about, it is worth taking a risk.