Universities should be wary of accomodating students with exam stress

Significant controversy erupted at Winnipeg’s University of Manitoba concerning math professor Gabor Lukacs, who filed a lawsuit against the university in the fall in response to the dean of graduate studies’ decision to waive a comprehensive exam for a PhD student. The hullabaloo brings to light the issue of extreme exam anxiety and encourages institutions of higher learning to rethink the type of examinations students must successfully complete in order to fulfill their degree requirements.

While students who have been diagnosed with and pursue treatment for their extreme exam anxiety – a condition that affects memory, normal learning and overall academic performance – should be able to complete their degree requirements in ways that are accommodating and fair, hesitancy on the part of post-secondary institutions to change types of examinations is warranted.

Although most of us experience some form of anxiety prior to writing an exam, including but not limited to having “butterflies,” a stomachache or a tension headache, individuals with extreme exam anxiety may feel shaky, sweaty, feel their heart beating quickly and may even experience nausea or a feeling of faintness. An individual suffering from the condition may blank out and forget much of the material he or she studied for, regardless of how well prepared that individual came to the exam. In general, these individuals are unable to perform in a way that reflects their true abilities on standardized testing.

In spite of these reasonable concerns, post-secondary institutions and a number of students across the country ask: should you be excused from taking a high-stress exam that leads to an exceptional distinction, such as a PhD? Additionally, if you can’t handle the stress of writing your exams, should you be granted similar exceptions in the inevitably stressful workplace? The argument among these individuals is that anxiety-laden students, who volunteer to be evaluated according to conventional criteria as in the case of a PhD comprehensive exam, should not be granted special treatment.

Richard Driscoll, who works with the American Test Anxiety Association and is the developer of the Westside Test Anxiety Scale, argues that “once you allow one person not to take the test, what you’re saying is taking the test is not that important. Where’s your limit on that one?”

Driscoll and other anxiety experts argue that it is normal for students to get uptight about exams and that the stress and “flutter” individuals experience is expected.

They do, however, acknowledge that some individuals experience an extreme level of anxiety, but note that this is rare and often requires a combination of training and medication to mitigate.

In 2009, students visited the University of Western Ontario’s Student Development Centre that provides individuals with learning skills 8,500 times either on their own or through referrals from residence advisers and professors. Colleen Dalton, a counsellor at the centre, noted that many students will only visit the centre once when they find themselves at a point in their lives where they are overwhelmed and need someone to help them.

As such, given that the majority of students suffer from a fairly normal level of pre-exam anxiety, perhaps the concern among post-secondary institutions in dealing with the increasingly prevalent issue of exam anxiety is to avoid making accommodations in the same way that elementary schools and high schools have had to make in response to the unfortunate over-diagnosis of ADHD and ADD among children and teens.

It also goes without saying that institutions expect there will be those select few who do not suffer from a debilitating level of exam anxiety, but will seek to take advantage of the system and the accommodations offered to those who legitimately do.

In the case of individuals who have been diagnosed with and are being treated for extreme exam anxiety though, post-secondary institutions should do what they can to offer accommodative and fair – but not easier than standardized testing – types of examinations so that they may fulfill their degree requirements.
At the same time, institutions should be cautious about waiving degree requirements and granting special treatment given that there will be some students who do not require but will seek to benefit from these accommodations. It is important to realize that exam anxiety is normal as long as it does not interfere with overall academic performance.

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