The Chosen Generation: Class suspensions & uncertainty over DSE exam date causing extreme stress levels among HK students

Class suspensions and uncertainty over whether the DSE exam will take place due to COVID-19 have caused immense stress among Hong Kong students. (Photo: Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority)
Class suspensions and uncertainty over whether the DSE exam will take place due to COVID-19 have caused immense stress among Hong Kong students. (Photo: Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority)

For Helen Lee, the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exam is one of the biggest tests in her life.

“The DSE exam is very important and [our results] will determine our future,” said the 19-year-old. 

“The better results you get, the more opportunities you have to further your studies and develop your career.”

Due to Hong Kong’s relatively small population, Lee added, it is difficult to get into her dream school via any other means than the DSE exam, which is Hong Kong’s main college entrance examination. 

Coming from a traditional Chinese family, she said there have also been heavy expectations on her to do well since she was young. 

“Compared with my classmates, my results are average, so I’m not confident about doing well on the exam,” said the student of a top school in Wong Tai Sin. 

The pressure was already piling onto her before the city was hit by its worst COVID-19 outbreak ever at the start of the year, but uncertainty over whether the exam will go ahead has further exacerbated her stress and anxiety.

The city’s daily coronavirus cases numbers hit five-digit highs in late February and early March, just a few months before the DSE exam was set to start. Education authorities then announced that the exam could be postponed or canceled should the pandemic worsen, adding they could only confirm what arrangements would be in early April.

The timetable for the college entrance exam has also been compressed from one month to around three weeks.

“The timetable is very packed and it is very exhausting for me,” said Lee. 

“The uncertainty also made me worried and affected my studying momentum.”

This was not helped by the fact that she caught COVID-19 about a month before the start of the DSE exam, which has now been confirmed to start this Friday

“I caught Omicron and it affected my concentration,” she recalled, adding that she suffered briefly from a high fever. 

“I was very tired and had to sleep after just reviewing [my subjects] for a while. My sleep pattern was also affected.”

But, fortunately for her, she said she had recovered and is not suffering from any long-term side effects. 

Lee is far from the only student preparing for the DSE exam and feeling the pressure. 

According to a survey conducted in March by the Hok Yau Club, an NGO providing support and guidance to students, on 578 DSE exam candidates, students reported an average experienced stress level of 7.87 on a 10-point scale, with 10 being the highest. 

The NGO said this was the second highest score it has ever recorded since it started conducting the poll in 2012, only behind the score of 8.1 in 2020, when the pandemic hit Hong Kong for the first time and shortly after pro-democracy protests subsided in the city. 

More than a third of the students also reported “very high” stress levels of 9 or 10. 

Hok Yau Club student guidance consultant Ng Po-shing said that 90 percent of interviewed students had experienced burnout, 87 percent had concentration issues, and 78 percent said they were prone to mood swings.

This cohort of students has been hit especially hard by on-and-off class suspensions since 2019, due to COVID-19 as well as protests against the passing of a bill that would allow extraditions to jurisdictions including mainland China. 

This cohort of students has been hit especially hard by on-and-off class suspensions since 2019, due to COVID-19 and protests.

“Not only is their learning affected since Form Four, they also have fewer opportunities to get support from their teachers and to interact with their peers,” said Ng. 

“Moreover, there has been a lot of uncertainty since the worsening of the pandemic at the beginning of the year.”

But with the DSE confirmed to go ahead as planned this Friday – barring any sudden changes caused by the coronavirus situation – the guidance consultant urged students to focus on what they can control and prepare so that they can reduce their anxiety levels. 

Although she has faced a particularly difficult journey in the lead-up to the big day, Lee said she is trying to stay positive and focus for the exam.

“If I can perform well on the DSE exam, I hope to study speech therapy at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), or Chinese language at HKU or the Chinese University,” she said. 

Lee added that her working mother has also taken leave during this period to help her with chores, such as cooking, so she can focus on the exam. 

It has certainly been a tough few years for this year’s DSE candidates, full of unprecedented challenges. We wish them the best of luck with the exam and hope they manage to stay safe and healthy during this trying time.

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