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University exam stress: 'I've seen many of my friends turn to ADHD drugs'

An engineering student writes about how he is buckling under the strain of too many exams concentrated at the end of the academic year.

Image: Shutterstock/Estrada Anton

YOUR UNIVERSITY years may be the best of your life, but they will also be peppered with exam stress. Exams loom large in the lives of students and I’m writing this to bring some attention to the unhealthy and outdated term structure in our universities.

Lots of you might be thinking that I’m just another student complaining about my workload. That I have poor time management skills or that I’m simply lazy.

However, I do work consistently and, like many of my peers, still seem to be under a tremendous amount of stress because all of our exams are concentrated at the very end of the year.

Low amounts of continuous assessments

I am an engineering student and have an average of 15 hours of lectures, classes and labs a week. We study ten different modules each year. Unlike some other colleges we take approximately nine of these module exams all in one go in the summer.

This means that we have nine exams with hardly any spacing between them. All of these exams carry from 70% up to a 100% of a module’s total grade. Just imagine studying nine dense engineering modules and having to remember all that information (some of which is from five months ago) and not get them confused.

This kind of exam system places a huge emphasis on memory recall, as opposed to actual learning. With virtually no continuous assessments and the year not being broken up into exams for semester one and two, students don’t really get any feedback or application of what they are learning.

Instead we are expected to memorise and regurgitate everything over a two-week period in the summer.

Universities prioritise research over teaching

I’m an engineering student but I know that the same is true in many other courses. Irish universities have long been opposed to the full semester system, in which subjects taught in the first and second semester are assessed in the semesters themselves.

Breaking exams into semesters would mean more marking and interfere with research. And I’m deeply troubled that those in charge of teaching seem to prioritise research over their students.

Our higher education system has become so lopsided away from teaching that universities need to fundamentally rethink their role and priorities. Lots of our universities see their reputation, their standing in prestigious international league tables and their marginal funding as being mainly determined by scholarly output, and so teaching comes only in second place.

Anxiety and abuse of prescription meds

Panic attacks are not uncommon during the exam period. A a student I have seen the extent to which some of my peers have been pushed. Even worse  is the abuse of prescription drugs like Modafanil and Aderall.

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Students turn to these ADHD drugs try and stay alert longer, enhance their memory and study ability. I have been offered these drugs and I actually considered taking them in my first year. I said no but I have seen many friends turn to drugs.

We need to talk about making alterations to the current system and we also need to remember that current students are still at the mercy of this archaic and dangerous system of teaching.

I write this in the hopes of getting a dialogue started. We have to divide the academic year into two halves.

The writer of this piece has asked to remain anonymous.

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