Testing Teenagers and Examining Stress

Brandon Barrera
August 30, 2018
Sarah-Jane Blakemore

Exams can be nerve-wracking to even the most prepared. In England, a roller coaster of emotions has been on display as the nation’s series of grueling public exams, the General Certificate for Secondary Education (GCSE), were proctored earlier this summer. The highly anticipated test grades were finally made public last week, and while the unveiling of the results may have brought about much-needed relief for some, the pressure and preparation needed to do well for others branded the two-year journey with a relentless villain—stress.

The anxiety-inducing exam was the focus of a thought-provoking article in The Guardian that featured Dana Alliance member Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University College London and author of Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain. The self-described champion of teenagers touches on the rash timing and the dread of the exams endured by the 15- and 16-year-olds during a period that she says is critical in a developing brain. From the interview:

“Until about 15 or 20 years ago,” she [Blakemore] says, “we just didn’t know that the brain develops at all within the teenage years.” Until then, it was assumed that teenage behaviour was almost entirely down to hormonal changes in puberty, but brain scans and psychological experiments have now found that adolescence is a critical period of neurological change, much of which is responsible for the unique characteristics of adolescent behaviour.

The article also provides insight into typical adolescent behavior—the reluctance to miss a party, the struggle to get out of bed well into the morning, and risk-taking. Blakemore explains that through experimentation, the deeds teenagers typically get vilified and excoriated for are now revealing themselves as by-products of essential neurological development.

The connection to Blakemore’s work is timely, given that this summer the GCSEs debuted reforms aimed at increasing the overall sophistication of the exams across numerous disciplines: biology, chemistry, and physics among them. The increased challenging nature of the tests has, in extreme cases, made for alarming testimonials.

As our understanding of plasticity and the developing adolescent brain grows, the conversations around education and parenting are certainly worth following.

For a more in-depth read of Blakemore’s work, read the full article here.