Board Exams - a mountain of a molehill

Everyone seems to be talking about students' mental health during board exams, so why's it still a problem?

Mar 06, 2023

My first post of 2023, and almost a year from my last post, but a few recent interactions with students (and their parents) about the ongoing board exams, made me break out of my writing lethargy and at least pen down my thoughts.

Breaking down the problem

An interesting observation I had is that almost every parent wants their kid to not be worried about the board exams, but clearly a large number of kids are way out of their comfort zone during this time. How do we explain this apparent conflict of data? Given the news about students taking extreme steps every year, it's certainly more than just a general exam anxiety. A few possible hypotheses that come up in discussions:

  1. Difference in the words of parents vs their behaviour. This may not necessarily be a conscious behaviour, but if kids were exposed to anxiety inducing behaviour for long, a few days worth of supportive statements is not going to change their behavioural wiring.
  2. A higher degree of sensitivity to failure in today's kids. This came a bit out of the blue during a discussion I was having with a podcaster (offline). Personally, I doubt that kids are more sensitive (less resilient), but it's possible that higher visibility via social media amplifies the perception of failure in the kids' minds.
  3. A general perception of life-altering impact of board exams. I suspect that this has its roots in the reality that for most Indians, education still provides the best possible chance at bettering our immediate economic/social status. This could be getting subconsciously by parents or elder siblings or even teachers at school, and might not be the result of a concerted effort.

As with most things in life, the reality could be some combination of a subset or all of the above.

Exploring better solutions

A society's wellness in large parts can be measured by how it protects the most vulnerable sections of the population, and how it sets up the next generation for a better world. Given that we've not exactly been able to contain this epidemic of exam anxiety despite being the focus of public media for close to a decade now, clearly we need to introspect as a society. A few things come to mind:

Pressure is not always visible. Take for example, an above average student working hard, whose parents want to be encouraging. Plenty of "always gets good marks" remarks at home, to the point where being a good student becomes an identity for the kid. What do you suppose will happen if they get anything less than great marks?

That brings up the next point - handling failure. One thing I wish I was taught than having to figure for myself, is handling failure. By handling failure, I don't mean just the absence of "shrug it off" advice. I mean helping kids understand what going through failure might feel like, how to navigate the stream of thoughts at those moments, and how to constructively recover from it in a step by step way. Doing this in a controlled environment in some sense is not too different from teaching kids how to develop better athletic control of their body.

Anxiety around board exams is a symptom, not the main problem. Clearly then, conversation about students' mental health needs to be a continuous process, not just an event before the board exams. For the same reason, doing away with board exams (a solution I hear from well meaning people at times), is also not the right approach, because it treats the symptom and not the root problem.

Lastly, and probably most importantly, by making the board exams such a big deal in our lives, we give way too strong an importance to a single event, than teaching kids about the importance of continuous learning and life choices. A student who did extremely well in their board exams but didn't continue to make great life choices later, will likely see less success (in societal terms) than the kid who spent 4yrs in a non-descript college but focussed strongly on developing their skills. Similarly, this latter kid will statistically see lesser success than a contemporary who continued learning beyond their college years.

Our life is determined by a long series of life choices, each playing its part. To give too much importance to a single such event, is to take agency away from our own future.