When we talk about exams and tests, we often talk about stress and anxiety in the same breath. And in the world of higher education, this means quite often.
Exam stress and the anxiety linked to tests can express themselves in many ways and have even more causes. But for us to delve deeper into the topic of exam-related stress, we should first explain how we define stress in higher education.
Exam stress: A pre-historic condition in modern education
Stress as a response is a natural condition. Biologically, our bodies are able to store extra hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to cope with pressure. This process is unharmful in the short term, but it can have grave consequences if the pressure is maintained for longer periods.
The stress response has played a major part in our endurance as a species, as it has been our coping mechanism or ‘survival instinct’ when we have been met with considerable pressure from external sources, be it ferocious beasts or an acute lack of sustenance.
These days, the hallways of higher education are rarely littered with fanged foes, and should we experience hunger, it is quickly fixed by consulting the nearest vending machine. The sources of stress we encounter today are usually of a more abstract kind and often related to our performance and working conditions; as these sources are more often permanent or long-term, the stress they induce can be severely harmful.
Exam stress is not just for students
During exams, we frequently discuss the emergence of stress in relation to students. And there is definitely a justification for that, as most students can experience short-term stress when they sit their exams. They can feel tired, pressured, worried and confused.
While uncomfortable, this is normal and can actually be a good thing, as it can increase their motivation, make them work even harder and squeeze in that extra hour of revision. But, experiencing this condition during an entire exam period, which in some cases can stretch for months, can be a serious health hazard and must be tended to. Luckily, most educational institutions have preparations in place to help students feeling overwhelmed by exam stress.
Related to the exam process are stakeholders that are often forgotten in the stress debate: the people who administer and assess the thousands of students’ exam submission. In exam periods, exam administrators and assessors are also presented with increased demands to perform.
According to the Work-related Stress, Depression or Anxiety Statistics in Great Britain 2017, education experienced the second-highest rates of work-related stress, depression and anxiety of all industries.
The pressure is on for exam administration and assessors
In a high-stakes activity such as an exam, the exam administrators are responsible for the structure surrounding the entire exam and assessment process. This puts a considerable amount of pressure on the staff of an educational institution, as they must meticulously plan every step of the distribution of the exam. If any administrative mishap should occur in an exam situation, the legal, work-related and psychological ramifications could be severe.
For assessors, the pressure is also high. During an exam period, assessors can go through hundreds of exams, each one submitted by a student who wishes for both thorough feedback and fast results. This forces a compromise between the two, as assessors must often hurry through marking and commenting to beat the invisible timer that accompanies every exam.
And the dangers of a prolonged stress response are the same for the employees as it is for the students. While a short burst of stress in a rapid paced work environment can cause excitement and increase the commitment to the work and overall productivity, long-term stress can have the exact opposite effect, presenting a health-risk and causing employees to be more disengaged from their work.
According to the Health and Safety Executive, a large workload is the cause of nearly half of all cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety.
Creating a better work environment with digital assistance
To clarify the stress-related benefits of implementing a digital exam and assessment platform in real life, we talked work environments in HEIs with Claudia Cox, Digital Examinations Project Officer at Brunel University London, and according to her, work-related stress in higher education is definitely present:
”Keeping a university running is no mean feat, it is no wonder that it can be a stressful environment. There is a palpable increase in stress (and in workload) during exam periods. An enormous amount of planning goes into the logistics of running exams successfully, but these plans still need to be flexible enough that we can address any last-minute surprises.”
One solution to improve the work environment of an educational institution is to provide its employees with better tools to handle their tasks. For example, by introducing a digital workflow in the exam and assessment process, the exam administration can quickly manage exam-related functions online from their regular workstation. It also means the exam administration can plan and prepare the exam in advance, and according to Claudia Cox, this is exactly the advantage administrative parties need:
“For our administrative team, a lot of the stress lies in the pre and post-exam preparations: ensuring that they have the correct exam papers which are free of errors; for pen and paper exams – having to collect and prepare student submissions for distribution to academics, and for all exams having to prepare the exam results to be reviewed at a panel.”
Brunel University started their WISEflow pilot at the end of 2015 and decided on going through with an implementation of the exam software for all colleges and departments in September 2017. Claudia Cox explains that even though it can be especially challenging and sometimes neigh impossible to maintain a healthy work-life balance during exam periods, their administrative team has already experienced a difference in their exam routine:
“The administrators have confirmed that the exam periods are a little easier now because the exam grades are more readily accessible in WISEflow and are also made available in a timelier fashion. They also really appreciate that all of the details (timings, candidate lists, passwords, etc.) are in one place and that there’s no more collecting and distributing of physical paper scripts.”
But a digital exam and assessment platform can not only ease the administrative workload. Likewise, the assessors can be relieved of unnecessary tasks by equipping them with the appropriate digital tools. Instead of spending large amounts of time decoding physical exam submissions, they can quickly and easily add comments to digital exams, thereby bettering the quality of feedback for the students. This lessens the compromise between time and quality, improving the work environment for assessors. At Brunel University London, Claudia Cox has observed a change in the assessment practice as well:
“Our academics can certainly become more stressed regarding efficient turnaround times for the delivery of grades and feedback to students. Ideally, students should receive their grades and feedback within 3 weeks of submitting and if there’s a large cohort of students then it can be quite difficult to meet these targets. Previously, we had no reliable way of documenting the actual turnaround rates, but since WISEflow implements assessor deadlines it means that any academics who are struggling are obligated to seek advice and support if they’re unable to complete their marking in time.”
Claudia Cox is convinced digital tools have their role in easing work-related stress. Digital tools, she explains, have the ability to automate or optimise menial tasks and save users a significant amount of time, leaving them able to focus on the more cerebral aspects of their roles. She thinks time constraints are a considerable factor in work-related pressure or stress, and it is especially frustrating when your time is being taken up by lots of smaller, relatively simple things.
And although Brunel University experienced an initial learning curve and increased workload when they first made their acquaintance with WISEflow, which Claudia Cox stresses is not an exclusive WISEflow problem, she is happy with the change to a digital practice:
“I believe WISEflow has overall had a significant positive effect on our work environment. Academic staff have noted a much calmer atmosphere during WISEflow exams. One has commented: “For the half hour or so that I sat with the students at the start of [an] exam, I would say that levels of anxiety were noticeably lower than in previous years. Normally, I get asked maybe a dozen trivial questions about the paper in that first half hour – this year there was only one.”. There is no risk of physical student submissions being misplaced, administrators find it easier to manage all the key details of an assessment, academics enjoy the fact that their multiple-choice papers are now scored automatically… the list goes on!”
Disengaged employees can be a costly affair
There are a lot of negative consequences connected to long-term stress. If employees are suffering from long-term stress, the first and foremost concern should naturally be the mental and physical welfare of the employees.
But the consequences of a stressed staff are not only to the staff itself. The educational institution will be severely affected in multiple areas if a betterment of the work environment is not administered quickly. One of these effects can very likely be employees feeling increasingly disengaged in their work. If employees experience increasing disengagement as a result of prolonged stress, their productivity will suffer greatly. Not only will this potentially increase the feeling of stress for the individual employee. It might also increase the workload of the stressed employee’s colleagues, causing an already vicious circle to grow.
There is also an economic incentive to invest in improving the work environment, as lower stress-related absenteeism will result in decreased payouts in the form of sickness benefits. According to Gallup, organisations with engaged employees experience levels of absenteeism that is 41 percent lower than organisations with a high percentile of disengaged workers.
According to the Health and Safety Executive, 12.5 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17.
Lastly, a stressful work environment is poor employer branding and can have a grave impact on the educational institution’s ability to attract talented employees in the future.