Exam stress a major concern for secondary students

Most pupils critical of poor guidance counselling and teaching methods

Exam stress emerges as a major issue of concern in a new study that canvasses the views of thousands of secondary school students.

Most students said there was far too much emphasis on exams and not enough on group work or continuous assessment.

Almost three-quarters felt either “very stressed” or “stressed” over exams, with many complaining about pressure from the volume of homework and revision.

The findings are contained in a report, published on Monday, that sets out the views of more than 3,200 young people aged between 12 and 17.


So, How Was School Today? was carried out by young people for young people across Comhairle na nÓg's national network of youth councils.

While students had increased stress in exam years, girls were more likely to say they were under strain, losing sleep and losing confidence, especially while studying for the Leaving Cert.

One fifth-year male student from Co Leitrim told researchers there was a need for "a proper system for mental health and exam stress... the availability of a designated person to discuss and facilitate issues and discussion".

A fourth-year female student from Cork said they “would appreciate if there was one class a day just to take time out and focus on mindfulness and wellbeing”.

Another female student, from Dublin, added: “Stop putting unbelievable amounts of pressure on students.”

The report shows under half of students (44 per cent) are satisfied with counselling and career guidance services at their schools.

Most secondary students are also critical of the style of teaching used in the classroom and over the way compulsory subjects such as Irish are taught.

Learning made interesting

While three-quarters of young people prefer active learning – such as quizzes, learning games and role play – only 30 per cent of students feel their teachers make learning interesting and fun.

While most students say their teachers generally support them, many feel dissatisfied with the kind of feedback they get, and do not think they can talk to their teachers about worries about falling behind.

Just half of students are satisfied with the availability and quality of learning supports.

Many also feel they have little autonomy or control over what happens to them in school.

Only half of students say they feel encouraged to give their opinion in class. Most students did not feel they could explain themselves without conflict.

When broken down by gender, girls tend to be less positive about their experience of school than boys.

The survey also indicates that as young people move through the secondary school system they become less positive in their attitudes about school.

The report states that the emphasis on high stakes exams needs attention, as it influences not only student wellbeing but also how teachers teach.

There is also a need for more research into how teachers teach and how students are learning in schools and classrooms in Ireland.

“This is especially important given the influence teaching has on student wellbeing and attitudes to school,” the report finds.


It says research was needed on the kinds of learning methods that stimulate students and encourage them to be actively involved.

In a statement, Minister for Children Katherine Zappone and Minister for Education Richard Bruton said they were glad to note the views of young people aligned "very well" with the thinking that underpins new junior cycle reforms.

Mr Bruton said the results will feed into a growing body of research on how to improve experiences for students.

“Indeed, I have taken on board some of the points raised already. Student wellbeing, for example, is a key priority of mine as Minister and we have introduced a new wellbeing programme this year for junior cycle to provide students with the necessary coping skills to manage stress in their lives,” he said.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent