Date
21 July 2017
School exams are causing great anxiety among students. In turn, anxiety over grades has been linked to a recent spate of student suicides. Photo: HKEJ
School exams are causing great anxiety among students. In turn, anxiety over grades has been linked to a recent spate of student suicides. Photo: HKEJ

Is anxiety a necessary evil for students to get good grades?

Most parents want their children to get good grades and they also want them to learn without feeling anxious.

However, achieving these two things at the same time is considered impossible by many parents and students, especially those in Asia, where the notion, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too”, has a considerable weight.

Is such a perception justified? Is anxiety really a necessary evil for students to get good grades?

While I do not think so, there is a prevailing view in Hong Kong that the Territory-wide System Assessment, which is scheduled to be replaced by the Basic Capabilities Assessment, is causing great anxiety among students. In turn, anxiety over grades has been linked to a recent spate of student suicides.

According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests competencies in reading, mathematics and science, Asian students have shown outstanding performances in general but their degree of anxiety when taking the tests is higher than the global average.

Singapore, for example, had the third highest anxiety index among the 55 countries and regions that joined the tests while Hong Kong was in 11th place. Students from both places received grades that were better than those of their counterparts in most countries.

One might conclude that anxiety helps students with their grades judging from such an outcome

But such a conclusion would fail to explain this: the math anxiety-performance link shown by PISA in 2015 suggested there is really no causality between anxiety and grades.

One example is the test grades in math received by students from Portugal and the Czech Republic were similar but the degree of anxiety was greatly different.

According to an academic theory, whether students have anxiety in learning is driven by their learning motivation, which can be simplified by a 2×2 matrix with the X-axis being “adaptive” and the Y-axis being “maladaptive”.

Most students in Hong Kong and in most Asian countries, fall into the quadrant of being “highly adaptive” and highly “maladaptive”, meaning they have high motivation to learn but they also have high expectations for good grades, which is the source of their anxiety.

In comparison, their counterparts in European countries such as Switzerland, Finland and Holland, are “highly adaptive” but only “somewhat maladaptive”, making them eager to learn but do not care too much about whether they get good grades.

That is why 82 percent of the 5,359 Hong Kong students who answered a the PISA 2015 questionnaire said they often worry that they can’t perform well in tests, doubling the ratio seen in students from Finland.

To be honest, it is hard and also irresponsible to ask students not to care about their grades at all, but that does not mean we should not do our best to make them less anxious when it comes to learning.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 12

Translation by Taka Liu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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