The death of a Turkish high school student last week, in the hours leading up to a national exam, has started an important debate about the anxiety many Turkish students endure while preparing for exams.
The results of the exams determine whether or not they will be accepted into a good-quality high school or university and ultimately will determine what the future will look like.
Around 2 million students took the Transition to Higher Education Examination (YGS) last week, which is the first-round exam of the university entrance system. Damla Orhan, who was only 18, died of a heart attack while she was preparing for the exam early in the morning. A relative of the girl attributed her death to stress brought on by the exam. “She had been anxious about the exam for over a year,” the relative said.
Preparation for public selection exams begin very early in Turkey. Students seeking to enter top high schools begin to complete practice tests in preparation for the Level Determination Examination (SBS) at the age of 12 or 13, which doesn’t allow much time for social activities and games and can negatively affect their psychology. Frequent changes to the SBS system has also caused students, who are already tackling the challenges of puberty, to remain in a constant state of unease during their years in the Turkish education system.
In 2008, the Ministry of Education decided that students in grades six, seven and eight should take the SBS examination at the end of each school year instead of the High School Entrance Exam (OKS), which used to be taken only by eighth graders. Critics said that taking the exam all three years would decrease students’ anxiety about taking just a single examination to determine the high school they would be admitted to. However, the system change proved to increase anxiety further.
In 2010, SBS examinations were removed for students in grades six and seven but remained for eighth-graders.
The steady stream of practice tests, real exams and constant studying is never-ending in Turkey. After students finally manage to enter high schools they begin to compete for places, this time in the country’s top universities.
For most, it’s virtually impossible to perform well on university entrance exams without enrolling in a private preparatory course (dershane) in addition to their high school classes. High school students spend countless hours after school and on weekends attending extra classes, and reading through test prep books as well as working on practice exam questions in a bid to secure a university spot.
Turkish students find themselves in a race for the top school spots, starting from early childhood, which causes immense pressure and is thought to be the reason Orhan died. The constant pressure remains an unavoidable problem for most Turkish students.
Psychologist Belkıs Ertürk told Sunday’s Zaman that being a little nervous can actually be helpful, making students feel mentally and physically alert and ready to tackle the challenges presented in the test. “But too much anxiety affects motivation, concentration and achievement negatively, causing physical distress and can prevent students from transferring their real performance to test results,” said Ertürk.
The psychologist adds that there are a number of anxiety-producing factors including inefficient or inappropriate test preparation, previous test experiences that ended in failure and fear of negative evaluation as well as teachers and parents’ negative attitudes towards testing, time limitations and the pressure to succeed.
“Anxiety may lead to cognitive problems such as mental blank-out, difficulty in concentrating on practice tests, racing or negative thoughts about consequences of failure,” said Ertürk. “It also inflicts physical damage on test takers. Hair loss, rapid heart beat, dry mouth and headache are among the leading symptoms of test anxiety.”
The psychologist adds that anxious students often feel hopeless about their situation and denigrate and scold themselves about poor performance in practice tests.
“The thought that a single examination determines the course of the rest of their lives puts much pressure and stress on students,” Ertürk said.
She also added that parental expectations are one of the leading anxiety triggers.
“Parents who spend large amounts of money to prepare children for national exams expect them to pass the exams, and this puts great psychological pressure on students,” Ertürk said.
“Families should not forget that the exams do not test personality but only what a test taker knows on specific topics covered in the test.”
Faruk Ardıç, a guidance counselor at the FEM Dershaneleri (organization of private schools that offer college prep courses) said in an interview with Sunday’s Zaman that a great deal of test anxiety is produced by a fear of the unknown.
“Students should become familiar with the topics covered on the tests and know more about their own capabilities to cope with anxiety,” said Ardıç, adding that setting a realistic target often reduces the level of anxiety. “Test takers should not set targets higher than their capabilities, since when expectations outpace capabilities, students grow more and more anxious,” he said. “I strongly encourage those experiencing distracting levels of anxiety to seek psychological help.”
Both Ertürk and Ardıç recommended creating an organized study schedule and sticking to it, which will give students a sense of accomplishment when they complete each study task they have planned.
The experts also added that creating a plan will minimize the possibility of experiencing anxiety, and while preparing for exams students should also continue to socialize with friends and family and take regular breaks.