Written by Devina Singh
The feeling of vexation, of desperately wanting a 95% because 90% apparently isn’t good enough; that feeling consumed me for months. I felt constantly daunted by the number of pages I had to read and thrown off by the number of facts I was expected to memorize. Yes, I was preparing for the dreaded Class 10 board examinations.
My entire school year, and probably everyone else’s too, consisted of going to schools, followed by tuitions, followed by more studying or homework. Needless to say, the increased workload took a toll on my stress levels. But this isn’t just an Indian phenomenon. Academic stress has been a global issue. A 2015 research conducted by New York University among selective high school students found that “Nearly half (49%) of all students reported feeling a great deal of stress on a daily basis” and another study, led by Mollie Galloway from Lewis and Clark College, shows that “Students who are overloaded experience higher levels of stress”.
Undeniably, everybody experiences academic stress to some degree in his or her life. Sadly, we wee it as an inevitable part of our academic years. While the right kind of stress helps to sharpen one’s mind and motivates one to do better, academic stress is causing much harm. A study conducted by the International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, combining studies from various countries, found that ‘the prevalence of anxiety is as high as 35% and the prevalence of depression is 30%’ among students who were academically stressed.’
A global issue, several studies around the world have shown that academic stress is not uncommon among students and is rapidly taking a toll on their mental health. According to a ‘Faculty Focus’ article, “A recent survey revealed that mental health issues, including severe stress, are on the rise. In 2016, 65% of students reported experiencing overwhelming anxiety during the previous 12 months, which is an increase of more than 7% from the 2013 data. (National College Health Assessment, 2016)”
While studies in India are limited, a survey by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), the apex center for mental health and neuroscience education in India, reveals that “Low academic performers rate higher on stress scale”, precisely, when put under an electronic test, 62.5% of low rankers had higher beta activity, which involves conscious thought and logical thinking with a simulative effect, and takes prominence during high arousal, anxiety and stress.
So why do students feel such academic pressure, and why is it becoming such a serious issue? From what I’ve experienced, it is not just giving exams that are causing the stress but the peer pressure that students faced during the year, leading up to the exam that added significantly to it. With competition levels being high amongst students, there is little collaboration. It is hard to turn to another student for help, as keen to outscore you; they are unlikely to lend a hand. Worse, no one wants to admit they are struggling for fear of being bullied. For this reason, I became fettered by the fear of judgment and held back from asking questions in class, worried that I would embarrass myself which then, in turn, triggered my anxiety.
A 2018 survey conducted by the Journal of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in Mexico shows that the main source of stress for high school students by far was exams. “The students reported that their sources of stress were: 1) exams, 49%; 2) choosing a career, 12.83%; 3) family problems, 9.54%; 4) economic difficulties, 11.86%; 5) problems with boyfriend/girlfriend, 4.93%; 6) having a relative or a friend with an illness, 4.28%; 7) personal health problems, 3.62%; 8) homework, 3.29%; 9) teachers, 2.96%; and 10) other, 1.97 %.”
In India, however, I believe it would be important to study other stressors. We have seen and heard numerous stories of unhealthy teacher-student interactions, and corporal punishments by teachers across the country. I have personally witnessed a teacher to throw chalk at a student for daring to question them or ridiculing another for guessing the wrong answer. Further, the impact of parental and peer pressure also must be examined in a country where a difference in a decimal point in your score may mean you are denied college admission while someone else is accepted.
In a generation where decimal points differentiate us, it has become paramount to tackle the issue of academic stress. That we are now living in uncertain times, of course, is only adding to that pressure. We must conduct wider studies and deeper analysis to understand the problem and then design ways to help students tackle them. Let us use the time this pandemic has given us to reflect on the environment we have created and change it for the better.