Doing the HSC does not cause undue stress, new research

Professor Viviana Wuthrich
Fran Molloy
16 October 2019
Faculty of Human Sciences


A two-year survey of this year’s HSC candidates across seven Sydney high schools has found that over 70 per cent of students manage their pre-exam stress levels well.

New research underway at Macquarie University shows that the vast majority of HSC students experience normal to moderate levels of stress during Year 12.

Helpful: Stress motivates students to study and helps them stay alert says Professor Viviana Wuthrich

“Our research does not support claims that doing the HSC causes undue stress in most students, in fact if anything, it helps them build resilience,” says Professor Viviana Wuthrich, who is the first researcher to measure HSC stress across the whole of Year 12.

The research shows that in Term 1, 76 per cent of this year’s HSC students had normal to moderate stress levels, dropping to around 69 per cent in Term 3.

“This is only slightly higher levels of stress than the national average for their age group,” says Wuthrich, from the Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University

“Students were coming up to major exams, so we expected to see some stress – in fact, they should have some stress, because that will help them study," she said.

Her study is the first to measure stress in HSC candidates throughout the Year 12 period. Around 450 students and 112 teachers were involved in the surveys.

Students and teachers from seven different high schools across the Greater Sydney region completed surveys designed to measure stress and low mood at four points over the HSC year, beginning with term four in 2018 and finishing up with a survey done last week before exams began. Data from the last survey is still being collated.

“Student stress increased significantly over time, as you would expect,” Professor Wuthrich says.

HSC stress aligns with the national average

The National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing of Children and Adolescents, and Youth Report shows that around 19% of 15-19 year olds show signs of distress, she says.

“We found that HSC students have similar or slightly higher distress than the national average at the start of Year 12, and that increases over the course of Year 12, but not critically.”

Normal: Stress motivates students to study and helps them stay alert says Professor Viviana Wuthrich

Across the terms, students experiencing normal to moderate stress levels decreased from 76 percent in term one to 69 percent in term three. There was a corresponding increase in students experiencing severe levels of stress – from 24 percent in term one to 31 percent in term three.

Depression levels also climbed from 24 percent of students showing severe levels in term one, to around 26 percent showing severe depression in term three – again, not a significant departure from the national average for 15-19 year olds.

Stress reduction: what works

Unsurprisingly, the research showed that students who had anxiety about doing tests or exams were far more likely to have increased distress in term three, she says.

“That shows that we should look out for those kids that already look like they're stressed out when they enter year 12, because they are probably going to find that the stress gets worse and worse.”

Identifying the highly stressed kids early on can make a big difference, she adds. “We know there are lots of things we can teach students about how to manage academic stress.”

Strong connections to peers and family are important buffers to HSC stress.

The research team is currently trialling stress reduction programs in year 11 students to see if it will assist them to maintain moderate levels of distress in year 12.

“We found that feeling a strong connection to their school and strong connections to their peers and their family were really important buffers to HSC stress,” she adds.

When schools make their students feel like they are welcome and they are part of the school and students have a positive association with their school, that can help keep stress levels at a moderate level, she says.

Stress has some benefits

Professor Wuthrich points out that some stress is helpful. “It motivates you to prioritise studying over socialising and doing other things you might enjoy more,” she says.

The right amount of stress can even boost exam performance. “A moderate level of stress increases our alertness and improves our concentration, so students benefit from some stress in the lead-up to their exams.”

There’s a fine balance, she warns – those laid-back students who are cruising through the HSC may not be at their best. “Conversely, too much stress can be a problem, making it difficult to focus and concentrate.”

Consequences: HSC stress teaches students how to manage stress over time says Professor Wuthrich

She warns that while some students get really stressed out the whole time, and other students experience climbing levels of stress, the HSC years contribute some important emotional lessons.

“For most students, it’s the first time they go through a level of chronic stress where performance really matters, so it’s an opportunity to learn how to manage stress over time,” she says.

Students who continue to university or into most workplaces will be expected to perform at their best - and there will be consequences linked to not performing, she says.

“How do you make yourself relaxed? How do you keep things in perspective? The HSC is just the first of many chronically stressful episodes that teenagers will experience in their lives.”

Teachers have stress under control

Wuthrich says she was interested to see what the interplay between stress levels could be in teachers and students.

“We actually found that teacher's levels of stress stay relatively stable actually throughout the three periods,” she says. Most teachers experienced normal to moderate stress levels throughout the surveyed period, with around 12 percent experiencing severe levels of stress in term one, dropping to around eight percent in severe stress by term three.

“We think that some teachers experience more stress leading into a new cohort,” she says.

Because teachers are professionals and teaching HSC students is a recurring job challenge, Wuthrich says that most have worked out how to manage their own HSC stress.

“While the students get progressively more stressed as time goes on, teachers go the opposite way, perhaps because once they have done their teaching work, it is really up to the students to sit the exams.”

Professor Viviana Wuthrich is Director of the Faculty of Human Sciences Research Centre for Ageing, Cognition and Wellbeing
Department of Psychology,  Centre for Emotional Health.


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