OBJECTIVE: In the present study we evaluated whether intensity and novelty of oral academic examinations are reflected in saliva cortisol titre.
DESIGN AND SETTING: 91 pupils completed questionnaires on sensation seeking according to Zuckerman as well as on stress coping strategies and rated their individual stress intensity upon minor oral examinations. 26 of these students donated saliva samples before as well as ten and 30 minutes after the examination to quantify cortisol using an immuno assay. Oral examinations during the school year, where students may re-adjust their grade on subsequent examinations, were regarded as minor oral examinations, whereas school exit examinations, where students do not have the chance to correct their grade anymore and may even risk a delay of several months in their academic career when they fail, were regarded as major examinations.
RESULTS: Minor oral examinations revealed either a moderate, but significant, increase in saliva cortisol titre by 1.1 fold or did not have a significant impact on cortisol titre. In contrast, school exit exams elevated cortisol titre 5.2 fold. In minor oral examinations, moderate correlations between cortisol titre and subsets in sensation seeking and coping strategies, respectively, were identified.
CONCLUSION: Intensity and novelty of an academic examination is significantly correlated to cortisol titre. Minor oral examinations, with little consequences on academic career, only have a minor impact on cortisol titre, whereas school exit examinations, which are novel to students and may have major consequences on the academic career, elicit a major increase in cortisol titre.