What Triggers Anxiety? Learning from an Online Examination

This year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many examinations are conducted online. It seemed to be a piece of good news to the candidates in the beginning, as online examination implies an open-book (search-engine-on) mode of testing. At least it is very hard to enforce a close-book test online.

However, it results in many anxiety triggers! Some are technical issues such as internet interruption during the exam, others are misunderstandings of the instructions, etc. Based on these experiences, we now get some ideas on what is triggering anxiety and how can we develop mitigation measures, at least for online examinations.

Uncertainty but of Serious Consequences

This study may explain why modern life (especially after the common use of online services) is associated with the global deterioration in mental health, including anxiety and panic attack. (Yiu, 2020)

The finding is summarized in two keywords: uncertainty and serious consequences. Examination is undeniably one of the most important milestones in students’ studies. It can have serious consequences if students fail their exam.

We have experienced similar stress before examinations, especially public examinations. It can impose a lot of uncertainties on the candidates even after reading all the instructions, such as:

How to go to the venue? and

How to arrive on time? etc.

In the past when examinations are conducted in physical space, such as an exam hall, we can clear the uncertainties easily. For example, we can try going to the venue before the exam so as to make sure that we know the correct way to go, the traveling time required, and familiarize with the environment, such as finding where is the toilet, etc. In fact, this is why a rehearsal is so common and important for all grand ceremonies — it helps visualize and prepare for any unexpected events.

For those uncertainties that cannot be cleared by rehearsals, we can still raise our hand to ask the invigilators in the exam hall if we have any questions on the exam questions or the settings. Invigilators do not only help prevent candidates from cheating, but they also act as information providers for clarifying any uncertainties that candidates may have.

However, in online examinations, all the uncertainties can neither be clarified by rehearsals nor answered by invigilators in-situ. All candidates are “isolated islands”, even if they can phone-call or email the “invigilators”, but it is hard to clarify it to all candidates, and some issues are about their specific situations at home, which are beyond the invigilators’ control.

For example, an electricity black-out or unstable internet/wi-fi during the exam would make a candidate anxious. It cannot be solved by the candidate or the invigilators, but the consequence can be disastrous. Other minor issues can also impose serious stress on the candidates, such as the lack of acknowledgements after submitting the scripts, the appearance of some unexpected warnings or messages, the unacceptance of resubmission (before the end of the exam), etc.

Imagine how would you feel if it acknowledges you with a LATE submission message when you submit the script online, when you think you submit it on time. In a physical examination condition, there is no such thing as late submission, because all scripts are to be collected by the invigilators. You can ask the invigilators immediately even if they told you that you are late. However, in an online exam setting, it allows late submissions and provides two different end times — one is a “Due” time, the other is an “Until” time. These flexibilities can trigger anxiety because of the worry about the consequences.

Many of us have similar experience that we dare not try new online transactions if the consequence is grace. The reason is because we do not know what would happen if we press a wrong button. This kind of uncertainties but of serious consequences can be an anxiety trigger, if we have to do the transactions.

Of course, people can argue that there are clear instructions on all these issues. If we read all the details, we can sort them out. But it is too demanding to ask people to read all those endless notes and instructions during an examination. In physical examinations, the invigilators would announce the important instructions to all candidates before the start of the examination. They would also inform the candidates in case they miss the instructions. But in an online exam, you have to read everything by yourself, and hard to ask for help. Any mis-interpretations of the instructions (or missed instructions) would be at your own costs or own risks. I am not debating who is right or who is wrong, but it is understandable that such an environment can trigger anxiety.

Online Trial is the Solution

The above analysis implies that allowing free trials or rehearsals of online activities can help mitigate the anxiety, because the trials can clarify the uncertainties. For example, if students can have multiple online attempts on past exam papers, then they know:

What would happen after each step?

What kind of acknowledgements they would receive after submission?

What should they do if interruptions happen, etc.?

Just like playing video games, it requires a lot of practices before knowing how to win. Sarcastically, people are not allowed to have practices (rehearsals or free trials) in important online events with serious consequences, but provided with a lot of free trials sessions for casual online activities, such as game playing and social media.

There are many other similar situations. Have you try applying online for a visa and passport, online payments and transfers, online booking and registration? Almost all of these critical online procedures would not provide any free trial opportunities, and very often you would become stressful and anxious because of the uncertain next steps. You will find that you do not have the required information to type in, the required documents to upload, etc. Sometimes it is frustrating or even panicking.

What triggers anxiety?

Holland (2020) defines anxiety as “a mental health condition that can cause feelings of worry, fear, or tension. For some people, anxiety can also cause panic attacks and extreme physical symptoms, like chest pain.” She considers 11 conditions as anxiety triggers, such as health issues, negative thinking, financial concerns, stress, public events, etc. For example, COVID-19 pandemic is found to cause a wide trigger of anxiety.

However, these so-called conditions put the blame on the victims and do not provide any external solutions. For example, when negative thinking is regarded as an anxiety trigger, they ask you “to refocus your language and feelings”. It is just rubbing salt in the wound!

It is more constructive and proactive, I suppose, to identify the underlying causes of anxiety from the Social Construct. If anxiety is triggered because of the uncertainty and serious consequences, then rehearsals and free trials can help mitigate. Take negative thinking again as an example, negative thinking itself can be good in preparing oneself for the worst, it is exactly the human instinct in dealing with uncertainties. It does not help merely by asking people to think positively, as it would make more harm than good when the worst really comes. The best solution to uncertainty is to clear the uncertainty as far as possible. When we know what would happen next with high level of certainty, then we can prepare for it or ask for help.

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Of course, in real life, uncertainty always exists and the future cannot be 100% rehearsed. But from the experience of the online examination, it is not only the natural uncertainty that causes anxiety, it is the online platform design that casts unnecessary uncertainties to the users, which results in anxiety trigger. It can easily be mitigated by providing free trials. Unfortunately, there are very few studies and actions from this perspective.

We have enough uncertainties from nature, the Social Construct and the institutions should not impose even more uncertainties on us.


Holland, K. (2020) What Triggers Anxiety? 11 Causes That May Surprise You, Healthline, March 28. https://www.healthline.com/health/anxiety/anxiety-triggers#1

Yiu, C.Y. (2020) 5Ws’ Association with Mental Health — Women, Wealth, Wisdom, Weight and Worry, Medium, October 25. https://medium.com/discourse/5ws-association-with-mental-health-women-wealth-wisdom-weight-and-worry-8b6a8c9f040b

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