I Must Get a First!

Maybe it’s because I am a Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) practitioner that I hear so much irrational language in my teaching rooms. Why do some students feel they “must” get a first class degree? Why do some students believe that failure to achieve a certain grade is “the end of the world”, “terrible”, “a catastrophe!”

Also, why is it that some students “can’t stand exams” and believe that underperformance in an exam makes them “a failure” or “a complete idiot”?

The answer to all of these questions comes down to the simple fact that they are, as we all are, born and taught at an early age to be irrational. When I say “irrational” I don’t mean unintelligent. I mean that we all have a propensity to think and believe in ways that are not consistent with reality and are unhelpful especially when we really want something (or really want to avoid something!) From time to time, we all demand success and fair treatment, describe inconvenient events as “terrible”, say that we “can’t stand it” when we underperform, or label ourselves “idiots” when we fall below ours and others’ expectations.

Over the past 5 years, I along with colleagues from Psychology, Sport, and Exercise, have been investigating and applying REBT with professional sporting and business organisations. The underlying philosophy of REBT is that it is not the situation that causes emotional and behavioural responses, rather, it is how you think about that situation that causes those emotional and behavioural responses. So it is not the 90-minute exam that causes a student to feel highly anxious and procrastinate. It is how the student thinks about that exam that causes the unhelpful emotion and behaviour. In REBT we call this the ABC:

A is the activating event (or situation). In this case, an exam.

B is the belief (or thought). In this case, it might be “I must get a first in this exam, it would be terrible to underperform”

C are the consequences (emotion and behaviour response). In this case, its anxiety and procrastination.

The good news is that students can alleviate their anxiety and curtail procrastination (C) by changing the way they think (B) about exams (A). By thinking Smarter (more rationally) about exams, students can feel less anxious and be more proactive about their exam preparation.  

Let’s break it down a bit further. There are 4 irrational beliefs.

  1. Demandingness. I must…You must…I have to…They should…
  2. Awfulising. It’s terrible…its awful…it’s the end of the world!…
  3. Frustration Intolerance. I can’t stand it…I can’t bear it…I can’t tolerate it…
  4. Depreciation. I’m an idiot…I’m a failure…I’m worthless…

Our research, and the general REBT literature, shows that holding these irrational beliefs increases risk of burnout, reduces motivation, and can lead to anxiety, anger, and depression. Hundreds of research studies link irrational beliefs to emotions and behaviours that are unhelpful for goal attainment, unhealthy for well-being, and are ultimately self-destructive.

As peers, we have a responsibility to ensure that our students approach assessment with a rational mind. Irrational beliefs are influenced by interactions with others. If we as lecturers use “must” and “terrible” to describe events, then we are advocating these beliefs to students, who may adopt them. Indeed thoughts and beliefs are contagious.

So what can we do? We can challenge these beliefs when we hear them in our students, and promote alternative ways of thinking. Smarter, more rational beliefs. To reach this goal, I have written three blogs, one of which you have just finished reading. In part 2, I will uncover some of the ways you can challenge irrational beliefs, and promote rational beliefs.

Take away thoughts: In the mean time, perhaps reflect on what you hear students saying about assessments. Have you noticed any irrational beliefs? Also, what do you notice about students in the lead up to exams? Do they act differently? What might this tell you about their thoughts and feelings?

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