William Guzzo, founder of Inspiration Education, the parent company of StudyTime, an online study platform that conducted the research, said the results of the study were surprising.

“As a company, we’ve seen so many students come through our doors who are facing these issues,and that’s kind of why we did this survey, we wanted to see how prevalent these feelings and experiences were.

“And I was actually quite shocked at how prevalent they were.”

The survey was deliberately conducted outside of the exam period, to better create a picture of how students manage stress during what is traditionally considered to be a less busy time of year.

“We conducted this all before the NCEA exams.

"If we ran this during exam period, maybe you could say the results are a little bit skewed because people are doing exams and obviously exams are really stressful,” Guzzo says.

“We wanted to see what it’s like during the year when maybe the pressure isn’t on, is there a difference? And obviously, there really isn’t!”

“I think it’s a bit more reflective of the kind of experience that students actually face on a day to day basis, or a month to month basis.”

In a statement, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) said that it doesn’t hold data on general student examination stress to compare to the survey’s results, however the authority added that it does provide advice to learners.

“NZQA encourages students to balance study with free time when preparing for examinations.

"While study is important, students should take regular breaks, stay in touch with friends and study groups, and get plenty of rest – especially the night before an examination,” the authority said in the statement. 

“Students with a diagnosis of general anxiety disorder may apply to NZQA for Special Assessment Conditions (SAC).” 

Guzzo says student voices are often left out of educational research, meaning that their input can be lacking in any strategies devised to support them.

“The hard thing about educational research or any kind of education outreach is that we often ask teachers or parents, but we don’t often ask the students themselves how they’re feeling.

“We wanted to ... try and really understand properly what are these issues that they’re facing,and ... [spark] conversation about what we can do as educators to help these students.”

With such significant results, Guzzo says it is clear that something needs to be done to assist students who are struggling.

As someone who had a hard time at school himself, he says he has some insights into what students may go through.

“I think the issue is that we’re not teaching student strategies.

"We’re not teaching them strategies on how to manage themselves.

"Anxiety comes from that feeling that you can’t control the situation you’re in.

"Part of that ... is learning about anxiety and being aware of it, but also having strategies to cope.

“How do you manage yourself in an exam when it’s stressful? How do you manage your study habits? How do you reset when you’re feeling burnt out or feeling depressed about something? How do you balance the constant pressure of having a smartphone in the corner, buzzing all the time with Facebook?

“The school system at the moment isn’t equipped to answer those questions.

"We’re in a school system that isn’t keeping up with those demands.

"It’s not the fault of teachers...they’re not trained to deal with those sorts of things...and they don’t have the time to.”

“Basically, I think this survey highlights that there needs to be a much bigger emphasis on mental health, strategies to deal with stress and anxiety and strategies to cope, but also at the same time, we have to, as adults, think to ourselves, 'what is the message we are giving to our young people' ... are we giving the wrong kind of message to our young people about the way that life goes.

“I think sometimes this narrative that we subconsciously kind of project to young people that if they don’t do well at school, their life is practically over, or if they don’t go to university, then their life is terrible, or they’re dumb.

“Maybe we should think about what is it that’s causing the anxiety in young people...what are the messages we’re giving to our young people that are making them feel so anxious?

"Obviously this is a massive issue and it’s not one that I can solve alone or that anyone can solve alone.

“I think that the government should start looking into and putting more resources towards dealing with this issue.

"And thinking about why are young people feeling anxious ... and then what can we do, as a government, as a society, as teachers, as educators, to actually solve that issue,” he suggests.

At Tuakau College, teachers are working to combat the stereotype of final exams being the arbiter of a student’s future.

Tuakau College has, in recent years, dramatically improved its NCEA results and assistant principal Christina Stilwell says there are a number of things that can be done to combat anxiety and stress in students throughout the year.

“Effectively by the end of Term 1, we can identify students who are struggling.

"I ask teachers to put in guestimations [sic] each term, so that we can see whether [students are] reaching their potential, and if they’re not reaching their potential, we look at strategies.

"It might be that we might remove them from a subject - I know that sounds strange, but there might be a course that they’re doing that isn’t actually helping, and is causing them more stress to be in there.

"And to use that time to work on other subjects that they are being successful on [is better].

"So we try to personalise their timetable to make sure that they feel as less stressed as possible,” she explains.

“It’s silly to get students to study a whole lot of extra work that doesn’t actually count towards their passing, they’re better to work smarter than work harder – that’s kind of our philosophy. 

"For different students it might be that they are a two year project and that’s OK, we’re OK about that."

As exams draw near, teachers work closely with students to confirm what they need – and are able –to achieve.

“One of [other] the things we try to do to decrease anxiety is to make sure that before they go to sit their exams, that they effectively know how many credits they need to get and try and get them as close to 80 as possible, so that should the wheels fall off when they’re sitting their exams, it’s kind of OK – it’s OK to sit a bad exam,” she adds.

“And also what we do is we do things like when exam leave starts, if the students want to they can come in and do extra revision with their teachers.

"They have a chance to finish work that hadn’t quite been finished...just to get a bit closer to the line, to the credits that they require.”

This is in addition to the presence of guidance counsellors and nurses who are on hand for studentsto discuss any issues with, Stilwell says.

She says the key is to involve everyone in the student’s life in helping them.

“I think that that’s the key, is that it’s a team approach, that it’s not just one person.

"I think that it helps because sometimes students form a good relationship with different people, whether it be their whānau teacher or their subject teacher, and sometimes those are the right people to be talking about what they need to do to be successful and what that might look like.

“If we don’t work as a team, it’s never going to be as successful as it could be,” she says.

Shaun Robinson, Chief Executive of The Mental Health Foundation, has some reassuring words for students and teachers in the wake of the survey.

“It is common and normal to feel some degree of stress or anxiety before an exam or any stressful or high pressured situation – it helps us to stay motivated and focused,” he says.

“If those feelings become overwhelming or someone is struggling to cope it is important they reachout to someone they trust, talk about their worries and visit their GP who will discuss various treatment options such as counselling.

“We must build a social movement that empowers people, including teachers to have the knowledge, skills and support to have courageous conversations with those who may be experiencing distress and help them to access the help they need and deserve.”

Based on the survey results, Guzzo also has some suggestions for teachers who have noticed signs of stress or anxiety in their students.

“I think the first thing that any good teacher can do is just listen ... listen without judgement.

"Really listen and try to understand their student’s point of view.

"Try and help the students focus on what they can control, rather than what they can’t control.”

He says StudyTime will continue running the survey in future years to build up a data set that willenable them to identify any long term trends in student anxiety and stress.
 

Where to get help

  • Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.
  • Lifeline: 0800 543 354; Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7); Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz; What's Up: online chat (7pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 children's helpline (1pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-10pm weekends)
  • Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7); Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254; Healthline: 0800 611 116; Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
  • If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111