Thursday, 7 June 2018


Introverts, Exams and Pressure

This week is exam time for thousands of students across Ireland. It is many years since I sat my Leaving Certificate exam but yesterday as I read some of the commentary on the English paper I began to consider introverted students and exams. Exams are pressurised situations requiring students both to think and act quickly.

‘Introverts, preferring the longer pathways in the brain, take longer to process information. They prefer to think deeply and analyse prior to commenting or engaging outwardly on the information. Extroverts, by contrast think more quickly and act almost impulsively on information’.
(Fonseca, 2014)

One could argue based on this quote by Christine Fonseca that extroverts are at as much of a disadvantage in exams but the challenge for introverts is they get stuck. Fonseca says that "introverts go too far, allowing their thinking to trap them in indecision. They weigh every option ad nauseam; afraid to make any one decision for fear that it is the wrong decision". She further adds "striving for perfection and becoming rigid in those efforts can lead to a form of paralysis when it comes to education."

This has serious consequences for students who do not do well in their exams. An Irish Examiner article from November 2014 states that "in Ireland an individuals’ position in the workforce is strongly influenced by their qualifications". We have an antiquated system that is still heavily exam based and entry to University is based solely on exam points. Other countries have a more rounded approach to college entry although in her research on high school seniors Fonseca identified many other challenges that introverted students face in US high schools where displaying their strengths on paper was as challenging as they compete with extroverts for college places.

Of a much more serious nature is the research that is coming to light linking high levels of suicide to the school year. In a recent Psychology Today blog post, Dr. Peter Gray, Research Professor of psychology at Boston College says, "Suicide is the third leading cause of death for school-aged children over 10 years old, and the second leading cause (behind accidents and ahead of homicides) for those over 15. The evidence is now overwhelming that our coercive system of schooling plays a large role in these deaths and in the mental anguish so many young people experience below the threshold of suicide." Dr. Gray found that the number of psychiatric visits and suicides rise during the school year and drop off during the Summer.

My conclusion is not that we do away with exams. Both introverted and extroverted students need to learn the skills to perform under pressure but a more rounded or humanistic approach is needed. One that balances the need to perform in a timely manner while allowing students the opportunity to play to their strengths and for introverted students that might be a year-long research paper rather than sitting an exam. Both teachers and parents have a responsibility to meet the individual learning needs of each and every young person so we can fulfil our responsibility to protect them.

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