Performance pressure and worries about grades
When talking to students about stress and lack of well-being many share that they feel a significant pressure from having to deliver “top” performances all the time – in exams, in assignments, in group work, in student jobs and in social life.
The pressure of performance
That there exist a pressure to perform and be successful among students has been widely documented and discussed, often refereed to as “a performance culture.” As a product of our society, including the effects of social media, many young people feel an expectation to achieve on many areas of life simultaneously. It is therefore not surprising that we find this tendency in higher education too, but we need to know more about what it means, where it comes from, and what we can do about it.
At CBS it is related to what we have termed “the myth of the ideal student“, which is a general feeling of needing to be successful in all areas of life, but it is also more specifically related to grades and exams. The pressure from wanting to do well is often also rooted in a fear of what other’s might think, if one is not performing well in all classes and tasks.
When performance and perfection becomes a challenge
Pressure from grades and exam anxiety has shown to be one of the major causes and concerns in interviews and surveys conducted among CBS students for the well-being research project. One reason for this is that the “performance” and “perfection” culture makes less acceptance off and room for difficulties, mistakes, and failure as a natural part of learning and growing. It is normal for students to have high ambitions or being motivated to perform at their best in their studies. The challenge is, however, if the focus within a study culture is too narrowly focused on ideals of high or “perfect” performance – and with that a very limiting idea of what is “success”. Then, it can produce a stress inducing environment where many students can feel a significant pressure to live up to unrealistic ideals. This can for example show up in relation to grades, feelings of having to be on top of everything all the time, holding back questions in class, high levels of anxiety around exams, and generally keeping one’s concerns to oneself.
In a setting where ideals of performance and perfection dominates, unhealthy competition and unconstructive comparison between people are more likely to arise as a consequence. In other words, it increases the fear of failure and creates more worry around exposing one’s difficulties and insecurities, which all are natural and important parts of being in a learning environment. This is signs of low psychological safety in an environment. Furthermore, it creates a “silence culture” where difficulties are less likely to be shared, which augments the pressure. In this way it becomes a form of vicious circle.
I do not dare to tell others if I think a subject is difficult. And if I think it’s difficult, I’m not saying: No, I do not understand. I’m just dealing with it myself. But why the hell aren’t we talking about it to try to find a solution? No one dares to announce that they think things are difficult. I believe it’s because nobody wants to be perceived as being stupid. In essence, you are scared of what others might think.” – CBS Student
Material to explore on this topic
An increased societal focus on exam anxiety among students
In June 2021, as students across Denmark was having exams, the media started reporting about an increasing tendency of students taking medicine to manage exam anxiety. “Students calm the nerves with beta blockers” read a headline on DR’s website. In the DR evening news that same week in early June, Bo Møhl, a Professor of Psychology from Aalborg University, said that: “we have to see it as a sign of crisis when young people take medicine in order to perform. Then it says something about a sick culture.”
Contributing to the public debate, Pernille Steen Pedersen wrote a chronicle brought by Berlingske Tidende, addressing the serious societal challenge and concern of stress and exam anxiety among students. Pernille’s research supports what the media was reporting that there is a widespread experience of anxiety around exams, and that grades for many becomes a source of excessive pressure. In the article she emphasized that this has to be seen as a problem within the culture, leading her to raise an important question: “How can educational institutions, including teachers, fellow students, and administrative staff, help to create a culture that can prevent exam anxiety from becoming such a major problem that anti-anxiety drugs are needed?” Pernille argues that if the current culture creates an environment where exam anxiety is common, to different degrees, then part of the solution needs to be a change in this culture towards more safe and relaxed study communities. A part of Pernille’s work, and with CBS Well-being lab, is to find out which kinds of measures and initiatives that can help to prevent it and develop material to this use.
Interesting indications from student polls
In a well-being workshop with about 50 students Pernille did an Instagram live pool to ask some questions about exams. 93% responded that they find it hard to talk about bad exam-related experiences. Despite being well prepared, 90% said that they are afraid of not doing well enough to the exam. 64% said that they might take it personally, if they feel that they did not live up to their own or others’ expectations about an exam, and in the case of getting a worse grade than expected, 88% said that this may make them feel like they are not good enough.
Interestingly, the survey also showed that it is not all kinds of sharing that is experienced as helpful. When it comes to being asked directly into one’s exam preparation or if other students give unsolicited advice, it appeared that the students were divided on whether that feels helpful.
In this video (Danish) Pernille speaks about exam anxiety and introduces different material she has made on the topic. Find more videos on the topic under the video section.
Summing up central findings
- Many students worry if they are doing good enough in their exam preparation. In particular for new students it can be hard to know how to go about the exam preparation and what is expected at a given examination. This can create a feeling of insecurity and, despite being well prepared, a fear of not doing well enough.
- In an environment with a performance and perfection culture, it is less common to talk about when things are difficult or does not work out. Many students feel a pressure to get very high grades and generally be on top of everything, including being socially active and having career-advancing student jobs. Many seem to think, that others have it all under control and manage better than themselves. This it is a myth (of the ideal CBS student), but it is reinforced because these things are not often talked about. Having too high or unrealistic expectations of oneself can lead to anxiety and/or stress.
- When difficulties are not commonly shared within an environment, but mainly successes, it can lead to worries about not doing well enough and a fear of failure.
- Getting a worse grade than expected or having a bad exam experience can for many students lead to a feeling of not being good enough and as having failed. It can be experienced as a critique or judgement of the person, rather than of a piece of work in a given situation and moment of time. This put additional pressure on the student in the preparation period as well as exam situation, if it is felt as something personal.
- There seems to be a belief that high grades are paramount for a good career. This over-emphasis on grades as the most important aspect of securing good jobs in the future, leads to increased pressure around exams and grades.
- It is common and very natural to feel some insecurity around exams and getting grades. If you feel this way, you are not alone, and this is important to know.
- Things get easier with time and practice. Many students share that they become more comfortable with exams with time. Both because they have developed routines and techniques for exam preparation, leading them to trust more in themselves, but also because having taken a row of exams gives experience and better understanding of what is expected.
- Talk to your fellow students about your exam related difficulties and concerns. You are not alone in experiencing them. Many feel that it can be hard to talk about, but also that it is a relief when other students share such experiences.
- It is good to have ambitions and motivations to perform well, the question is merely to find a healthy balance for where the demands become too high or unrealistic.
- It is a natural part of life that things sometimes don’t work out as we wish. Difficulties, challenges, and failures are natural components of learning and taking on new tasks. Learning how to manage that is an important skill and will be of high value at the work market.
- In the modern work life grades are not everything. Personality, motivation, and human skills are as important.