Examinations are designed to probe student knowledge. I have read that the brain treats assessments, appraisals, and performance evaluations in the same way. As a threat. The interesting thing about a threat is that it triggers either one of two responses: fight or flight. Last week I had the fortune of dialoguing with a student who was experiencing the threat of an impending examination. I was eager to learn about the cause of the fight or flight response and the associated anxiety.
The student in question was anxious and was feeling immense pressure to perform well. She said that she had to get an A+ on her examination because her future studies depend on good grades. For her, it would be terrible to get less than an A+ , and a complete catastrophe to fail the exam. This student was in a most unfortunate predicament. But she didn’t realize that she was a victim of her own reasoning:
P1. (premise) I must never fail an exam
P2. (premise) If I must never fail an exam, failing this one would be a catastrophe
C1. (conclusion) Therefore, failing this exam would be a catastrophe
This reasoning is simple but misguided. In her first premise, she is suggesting that the world must be such that she never fails exams. Her use of the word “must” suggests a level of control over the world that is reserved for the gods. I suggested an alternative wording: I prefer that I don’t fail exams. In stating a preference rather than demanding that the world conforms to a desire, the student may find a reduction pressure.
I also talked with the student about her second premise. Would failing this exam really be a catastrophe? I asked if she could re-take the exam at another time. She said that it would, indeed, be possible to sit the exam the following year, which indicated to me that failing wouldn’t be a catastrophe. An inconvenience, sure. But a catastrophe, not really.
Still, the student was not convinced. So I asked what else might happen if she failed her exam. The poor student talked about her parents and friends, and was clearly worried that they would think negatively of her if she failed her exam. Not only was she worried about failing the exam because it might impact on her future study, she was also worried that she would lose the approval of her friends and family. Her reasoning took the following form:
P1. (premise) If I don’t have the approval of my friends and family, then I am not worthy
P2. (premise) If I fail my exam I won’t have the approval of my friends and family
C1. (conclusion) Therefore, if I fail my exam, I am not worthy.
It is no wonder the student was anxious. She had done herself a great harm by forming this unsound deduction. So we discussed her first premise. I asked about her life outside of school. As it happens, she is an artist and also helps care for homeless animals. These are worthy endeavours. Her actions make her worthy, not the opinions of other people. After further discussion, it was revealed that her parents and friends are proud of the work she does with animals. And they love her art. Bringing this to the surface disarmed her second premise. She has the approval of her friends and family regardless of her performance in exams.
I am uncertain how much help I was able to provide to the student. But I can report that she appeared more relaxed about her exam after we talked.