Why are we expected to put our health on hold for two weeks?

The student cost of exam weeks

Student behind a pile of books
Photo: Pexels

The words a UCU student utters, presumably, the most during exam weeks is “I’m so tired.” Two two-week periods determining the academic success of a four-month school term puts a lot of importance on the midterms and finals as well as creating a lot of stress and expectation around them. This creates a toll on both students’ emotional and physical well-being.

Many students at UCU have stated that they feel pressure to succeed academically and some say that their academic performance impacts their self-worth. Due to this, exam periods become stressful and anxiety-ridden experiences. In the hyper-competitive academic sphere, studying at the cost of their health becomes what is expected. “Not being productive, even when I know that it will benefit my mental health, makes me feel guilty,” says a student. Because of the stress and compulsion to be productive, students develop unhealthy habits, which in turn decrease their actual productivity.

During exam weeks; pulling all-nighters, chugging energy drinks, dependence on caffeine or even medication to be productive are expected and even normalized for a university student. In my interviews, most students stated that they lose their appetite due to stress. “(During the exam week) to cope with the stress after studying I smoke cigarettes…It’s thrice the amount I usually smoke,” a student explains. The substance dependency to destress or motivate one’s self increases immensely. Some students express that they take psychiatric medication such as Adderall or Ritalin to help them focus and study for longer, without any medical diagnosis. 

These accounts call into question whether the performance of these students when they are not functioning their best either mentally or physically, is a good representation of their academic success. None of the students I talked to believed that they were able to perform up to their potential in the midterms and finals. A counter-argument that is often made to the students complaining about how tirelessly they study during the exam weeks is that they should have studied weekly, instead of all at once. This disregards that due to the importance placed on their academic success, no amount of studying feels enough for many students. The anxiety and the feeling of insufficiency make the students feel an obligation to study as much as they can. 

“Some students have four exams in three days, no matter how much or how on time you study; there is no way you are performing as well as you could have otherwise,” says a student. The students’ struggle during exam weeks is not an individual problem, it is a systemic problem, which is not specific to UCU. If academic institutions value the transmission of knowledge to and genuine intellectual engagement of the students; assessing one’s ability to do so in a mere two-week period with, mostly, multi-hour hour exams seems counter-intuitive. When asked what they believe would be a better way to determine their performance, most students proposed continuous assessments that take various forms; written exams, oral exams, presentations, essays, projects etc. that culminate as their grade. The more often and less weight-carrying assessments might be a way to decrease the negative impact of exam weeks on students and better their ability to learn and think.