Traditional midterms are more beneficial than students realize

Despite negative stressors exams tend to bring, valuable resilience can be gained from traditional forms of testing

· Oct 23, 2018 Tweet

Courtesy of flickr user Alberto G.

As the leaves begin to change and the air becomes colder, increased panic and worry permeates the University of Wisconsin’s student body. Now, these feelings of distress are not simply related to the weather. As fall comes, so does a slew of important midterm exams, which adds even more weight to the struggles and stress brought on by anxiety and mental health issues.

Even with increased media attention to mental health awareness, college students experience heightened levels of anxiety more so than ever. The fall 2017 National College Health Assessment found 29.5 percent of college students felt overwhelming anxiety within two weeks of the survey, with the figure rising to 42.8 percent when the time frame was extending to the past 30 days prior. Further, 1 in 5 respondents were diagnosed or received treatment for anxiety within the 12 months prior to the survey. This general evidence has led some to believe that traditional examinations contribute greatly to this general sense of anxiety and other avenues of learning should be implemented.

This assumption is readily made around midterm season, as many on campus notice a marked uptick in library crowds, sobbing solitary people taking up entire booths in dining halls and therapy dogs on call around campus. These occurrences can be attributed to students experiencing test anxiety as exam dates near.

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The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reported this anxiety can stem from a fear of failure, lack of preparation and prior negative experiences with testing. This manifests in symptoms present in other forms of anxiety like nausea, rapid heartbeat, feelings of helpless and panic attacks. University Health Services acknowledges the prevalence of test anxiety on UW’s campus and offers sessions devoted to stress management to help relieve its effects, as well as a short video on their website highlighting general tips for students to “test their best.”

While exams can certainly arouse stress, it is important to note this stress has the potential to increase learning and performance more so than other types of learning. The 2007 study “Enhancing learning and retarding forgetting: Choices and consequences,” published in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review found subjects were far more likely to retain information when forced to guess on questions like students often have to do on examinations. Additionally, recall of information was higher when tested with feedback than with a restudy session. Applied to the greater context of a university course, this suggests a test will ensure long-term learning more so than any discussion section will.

Apprehension toward methods of assessment at UW, which often take the traditional form of a written examination, may arise in students due to the difference between these assessments and their prior academic assessments. For example, many students come straight from high schools where tests are administered in standard classrooms holding about 30 students by teachers who they know personally and are comfortable with. This is a stark contrast to the large lecture halls midterm examinations are often administered in, with proctors unfamiliar to the students distributing the testing materials and watching the test take place.

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Further, some students come from learning environments which eschewed the proven success of traditional assessments and implemented wide-ranging project or discussion-based learning and grading for their classes. Personally, I will admit I did not take a single exam until my fourth semester of college due to these different learning methods and vividly remember my anxiety when I was expected to do my first three within a single 27-hour timeframe.

In order for students to engage with these assessments successfully, it is crucial for students to interpret this stress from the new experience as eustress, or “good stress,” instead of immediately rendering all signs of stress into an unhealthy, negative form. So often students are shown the negative potential effects of stress, from addiction to harmful outbursts, which make them ignore the positive effects of stress. Instead of letting the stress of the event of the test consume oneself, one must allow themselves to notice that this stress is meant to alert the body to achieve optimal arousal for the test so that one can have optimal performance.

This word of advice is not all-encompassing, as alternative forms of assessment are needed for some students to overcome their test anxiety. The McBurney Disability Resource Center allows for alternative testing accommodations for students diagnosed with anxiety and other mental health disorders that can raise test anxiety beyond a manageable level. Commonly utilized accommodations include extended time for exams, a different testing location and scheduled breaks in exams. These changes to the testing environment allow the more than 2,200 students who utilize the McBurney resources to continue to receive the beneficial learning effects of test taking while in a less stressed frame of mind.

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With varying methods of stress management and accommodations available, ranging from McBurney visas to library visits from adorable puppies, the UW community is doing as much as it can to ensure students receive the benefits from test-focused learning while maintaining mental health. Students must be mindful that though stress may seem negative at the time, the lessons and resilience stressful situations teach provide positive benefits in the long run. Good luck on midterms, Badgers, and remember there really are benefits of weathering the storm. 

Angela Peterson ([email protected]) is a junior majoring music and history.


This article was published Oct 23, 2018 at 11:00 am and last updated Oct 21, 2018 at 5:13 pm


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