Commentary: Negative thoughts over a bad exam grade aren't just harmful, they're also baseless

Commentary: Negative thoughts over a bad exam grade aren't just harmful, they're also baseless

Dwelling on those negative thoughts from unexpectedly bad exam results can make such a thinking pattern addictive, but there are ways to manage them, says one psychology lecturer.

A levels
File photo of A-level students receiving their results. (Photo: MOE)

HULL: Exams are an almost unavoidable part of young people’s lives – and, inevitably, some people perform better than others. But what is more important than taking exams is how students manage the results of their exams – especially if they aren’t what was expected.

When the results are negative, it can be easy to come up with automatic thoughts such as “I will never succeed in my life”, “I’ve disappointed my parents”, or “everyone is better than me”. And although it might feel like these thoughts are valid and very real at the time, most of these statements are contaminated with thinking errors.

One example of a thinking error is what’s known as “dichotomous thinking”. This happens when people perceive things in black or white terms – it’s either a success or a failure.

There’s also “fortune telling”, this is expressed when people believe they know what is going to happen: “I will fail again.”

Another type of thinking error is “catastrophising”, which is where you think the worst possible outcome will occur – so it might be something like: “If I fail the exams, I will be unemployed for the rest of my life.”

In these situations, it’s also easy to start over-generalising, where you extend any conclusions you reach about one thing to cover everything. People do this by using absolute terms – “always” or “never” – such as: “Since I failed this exam, I will always fail in everything.”

It’s common, too, for people to discount the positives and underestimate their strengths – thinking along the lines of: “The last time I did a good job was only because I was lucky.”

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(Photo: AFP/Toru YAMANAKA)


To fix these types of thoughts, you can engage in a process, which is known as cognitive restructuring. This technique has been used by psychologists who adopt the cognitive behavioural approach in their practice to help people who experience anxiety or depression.

According to this approach, people experience such problems because they dwell on negative thoughts to the extent that they become addicted to such a thinking pattern.

Negative thoughts, then, lead to specific bodily symptoms – such as butterflies in the stomach, as well as negative emotions, such as excessive worrying.

They can also lead to avoidance behaviours – for example when students do not want to resit exams – all of which traps people, eventually, into a vicious circle.

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Cognitive restructuring can be used to fix any harmful thoughts and protect students against experiencing negative feelings. This technique involves a series of steps. To start, you can use a Thought Record Sheet to record your feelings.

This might include ranking your feelings and thoughts over a particular day – such as sadness and irrational thoughts such as: “I will always fail.” This can then help to identify any thinking errors you make – such as overgeneralising or catastrophising.

You can also use some challenging questions to test the validity of your thoughts – such as: “Do I have a crystal ball in front of my hands that allows me to see the future?”

You can then use all of this to hopefully come up with more adaptive responses, such as: “Passing A-level exams is not the only route to success.”

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Using this technique can feel like a battle between the irrational and the rational aspects of one’s self – where each side tries to convince the other about its rightness. That’s why by focusing on the evidence you can test the validity of these automatic thoughts based on facts.

A student looks at her A-level results at the Harris City Academy in London
A student looks at her A-level results at the Harris City Academy in London, Britain August 18, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Peter Nicholls)

The battle between the irrational and the rational selves is ongoing for most people, but knowing how to challenge the validity of one’s thoughts can help you to remain realistic most of the time.

These techniques can hopefully help you calm your nerves ahead of results day, but should also help you with any decision making you have to do once the results are in.

Constantine Mantis is lecturer of Health and Exercise Psychology at the University of Hull. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)