The anxiety response within the academic context, especially before exams, is something that students frequently experience in all educational stages. It is so common that it has become a normal feeling that appears in almost everyone subject to assessment. It is viewed as inevitable. Nevertheless, little is known about the negative impact of an excessive anxiety response on exam performance, be it a theoretical or practical exam, which is a stressful event in and of itself. Nor is the impact on overall performance in the educational process known.
The feeling of lack of control in new and unfamiliar events is responsible in large part for the presence of the preemptive anxiety response and an activation of our sympathetic nervous system (responsible for modulating the stress response). This causes a decrease in blood flow to the prefrontal cortex of your brain, where executive functions are located. Accordingly, we can appreciate that when the sympathetic nervous system is highly activated, students’ performance is directly and negatively affected, due to the interference caused in capacities as important as memory, focus, and learning itself. This occurs as a result of the release of chemical mediators that reach brain structures involved in learning, focus, cognitive flexibility, decision making, and memory, activating the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis and damaging interneuronal communication by releasing cortisol and corticotropin in the hippocampus.
Moreover, the way stressful events are handled is intimately related to the way a person conceives of the demands of their surroundings and their strategies to deal with them. It can therefore be deduced that a student who is having a heightened anxiety response is using a coping mechanism that is ineffective for the situation they are facing.
So, it is possible to manage the heightened anxiety response caused by taking on a stressful event such as an assessment?
Yes, it is. There are a number of ways to provide students with the adequate, flexible strategies to ensure that anxiety does not negatively affect their academic performance and that taking on an exam does not entail a challenge so difficult to achieve that it is practically impossible.
First, it is important to understand the psychological profile of the person in order to understand how to respond to the events that produce anxiety. The response style is determined mostly by psychological factors such as personality and, therefore, students should ideally be equipped with the resources to know themselves and improve. Although it may seem difficult at the outset to create an individual psychological report for each student, it is something that the institution’s professionals could spend a certain amount of time on at the beginning of each academic year, i.e., to conduct a brief study that may offer up the guidelines to properly adapt and perform better academically, which would benefit both students and professors.
Second, to find out the level of sympathetic activation involved, there are now biofeedback devices that provide anxiety response information in real time. These devices, which are easily accessible to anyone, provide HRV (heart rate variability) data and an autonomic modulation profile that indicates sympathetic and parasympathetic activation at all times. This would allow students to learn about their anxiety responses in order to manage them.
Finally, repeated exposure to a stressful event will allow the individual to get used to it and to reduce their stress response to said event, so it wouldn’t be a bad idea to increase the number of “practice” exams, which will help students become familiar with the exam process and, therefore, help them feel more accustomed to it. This is going to allow that stressful event to slowly become a routine action like any other.
It is therefore possible to provide students with the tools necessary to ensure that a heightened anxiety response will not negatively impact their academic performance, provided they understand the factors that influence an excessive activation of the autonomic nervous system and been given the appropriate strategies to manage and control it. The teaching and learning process can be improved if the focus is placed on the student and not just on their grades, which are ultimately the result of the process in itself and the way in which the students are asked to show their capabilities.
Beltrán-Velasco AI, Bellido-Esteban A, Ruisoto-Palomera P, Clemente-Suárez VJ. Use of Portable Digital Devices to Analyze Autonomic Stress Response in Psychology Objective Structured Clinical Examination. J Med Syst. 2018;42(2):35.
Clemente-Suárez, VJ., Beltrán-Velasco, AI., Bellido-Esteban, A., Ruisoto-Palomera, P (2018) “Autonomic Adaptation to Clinical Simulation in Psychology Students: Teaching Applications.” Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 43(1). https://doi: 10.1007/s10484-018-9404-6
Bellido, A., Ruisoto, P., Beltran-Velasco, A., & Clemente-Suárez, V. J. (2018). “State of the Art on the Use of Portable Digital Devices to Assess Stress in Humans.” Journal of Medical Systems. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10916-018-0955-0 Beltrán-Velasco, A.I., Ruisoto-Palomera, P., Bellido-Esteban, A., García-Mateos, M., & Clemente-Suárez, V. J. (2019). “Analysis of psychophysiological stress response in higher education students undergoing clinical practice evaluation.” Journal of Medical Systems, 43:68. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10916-019-1187-7