More board exams and the growing academic pressure on Bhutanese students

The recent board examinations have brought to light a nuanced narrative encompassing both academic success and the growing stress levels among students. Various research studies share the finding of a correlation between academic pressure and stress among students.

While the country and social media wildly celebrated those who came first, second and third in the board exams, the Bhutanese education system becoming more exam oriented with Board exams in class 6,8,10 and 12 is creating a huge pressure on students and teachers alike.

Students fell the stress

As per the research conducted by Orozco et al. (2018), there exists a connection between students’ mental well-being and their academic achievements. The study revealed that for middle school students, statistically significant associations with suicide attempts included not being enrolled as a student in the preceding year, lower self-perceived performance, and a greater number of failed courses. In the case of high school students, the predictive factors were failed courses and their self-perceived academic performance.

Neruta Nepal, an eighth-grade student from Gelephu, shared, “My board exam took place on 4 December 2023, and I felt extremely nervous. I believe it was the Dzongkha 1 exam, which is considered a crucial subject, and failing in Dzongkha could lead to failing the entire grade.” After each exam, she shared that she refrained from checking her books to see if her answers were correct, fearing additional stress if they were wrong.

She said, “I was afraid of regretting – not preparing well for the papers. Almost every exam filled me with the fear of failure, as I was not well-informed about the grading system in the board exams.” She shared that she only felt relaxed during the history paper, as it was the only subject where she felt confident in scoring a good mark.

Sonam Dorji, an eighth-grade student from Thimphu, expressed, “Being my first board exam, I felt stressed because it was a new experience for us, and I was anxious about the nature of the questions we would encounter.” He also said that his friends and elders have advised him that since it was a board exam, it would be challenging, and therefore, he needed to study diligently.

The 2016 Global School-Based Health Survey findings indicate a connection between increased stress and academic pressure among students in Bhutan.

Deepak Gurung, another eighth-grade student from Tsirang, expressed, “I sensed that board exams are challenging, requiring additional effort to excel.” He shared that he was particularly concerned about the Dzongkha subject, the others went relatively well. However, he could not be certain about the results due to it being a common exam until the results were out.

However, a student counselor from a school in southern Bhutan shared his perspective. When asked about how he perceives the introduction of board exams for Class 8 impacting the mental health of students, he mentioned that the quality of education has declined, and the sense of competition among students has diminished. He pointed out that since there is already a common exam for Class 6, board exams shouldn’t necessarily burden students with stress. While acknowledging both negative and positive aspects, he noted that some children might find board exams daunting, potentially leading to an increase in the dropout rate.

When queried about any observed changes in student behavior since the introduction of board exams for Class 8, the counselor acknowledged that there was an increase in fear and stress among students, and a heightened desire to drop out of school. However, he also noted that a significant number of students performed better than expected.

Regarding coping mechanisms for students dealing with exam-related stress, he recommended that exam preparation should start at the beginning of the academic year, discouraging last-minute cramming. Additionally, he suggested providing adequate facilities for students to lead a stress-free life, such as IT labs with internet access, recreational activities, guidance and counseling sessions, comfortable study rooms, and a conducive environment in hostels.

When asked about the potential long-term psychological consequences arising from heightened academic pressure at an early stage in a student’s education, the counselor emphasized that excessive pressure without effective coping mechanisms could result in mental health issues. He pointed out that children who concentrate solely on academics without socializing are vulnerable to developing future mental health problems. Thus, maintaining a balance is crucial. Potential mental health issues include anxiety, nervousness, stress-related disorders, poor time management, anger issues, suicidal thoughts, and depression.

While the sense of competition among the students is encouraged, it is equally essential to examine the level of stress and anxiety that the students go through. Beneath the surface lies a growing concern regarding the mental health of students, exacerbated by the pressure associated with these examinations.

Board Results

In the BHSEC class 12 examination conducted in December 2023, a total of 10,237 students from 81 higher secondary schools (71 government and 10 private) were enrolled. Of these, 10,131 students appeared on the exam, and 8,823 successfully passed, resulting in an overall pass percentage of 87.09 percent. This indicates a slight decrease of 0.71 percent compared to the 87.80 percent pass rate in 2022. The stream-wise pass percentages were 82.71 percent in science, 84.30 percent in commerce, and 93.31 percent in arts.

The national pass percentages for BHSEC examinations in previous years are as follows: 87.09 percent in 2023, 87.80 percent in 2022, 82.00 percent in 2021, 90.63 percent in 2020, 91.55 percent in 2019, and 87.99 percent in 2018.

168 students registered for Language and Culture Studies Certificate (LCSC) Class 12 examination in  December 2023 and 167 of them took the exam. Among the candidates, 165 successfully passed, resulting in a remarkable pass percentage of 98.80 percent, which is the highest for LCSC this year. The historical national pass percentages for LCSC examinations in previous years are as follows: 98.80 percent in 2023, 94.20 percent in 2022, 80.99 percent in 2021, 86.82 percent in 2020, and 88.94 percent in 2019.

In the December 2023 common examination for Class 8, a total of 14,993 students from 165 schools (156 government and 9 private schools) were enrolled. Of these, 14,847 students took the examination. Notably, Sakteng Lower Secondary School achieved a remarkable 100 percent pass rate among its students. The overall pass percentage for the exam is 79.55 percent, marking a substantial increase of 23.17 percent compared to the 56.38 percent pass rate recorded in 2022.

While the pass rates for Class 8 board examinations have risen, the report and its conclusions highlight a concurrent escalation in stress levels attributed to academic pressure.

According to the NSPCC, young individuals expressed to counselors their sense of being overwhelmed by the entire examination procedure. Factors such as excessive workloads, difficulties with specific subjects, and a lack of readiness for exams were all cited as contributors to heightened stress and anxiety among young people.

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