What is test anxiety?

Tests are general academic requirements in schools and higher education. However, taking an exam appears to be a stressful experience for most people, as tests are appraised as challenging, ego-threatening or harmful (Lazarus & Launier, 1978). If the person cannot cope with the stress, this appraisal gives rise to test anxiety. This is usually characterized by subjective feelings of tension, apprehension and worry (Auerbach & Spielberger, 1972). Power and Dalgleish (1997) conceptualize test anxiety as “a state in which an individual is unable to instigate a clear pattern of behaviour to remove or alter the event/object/interpretation that is threatening an existing goal” (pp.206-207).  

Two different components of test anxiety have been introduced by Liebert and Morris (1967): ‘worry’, which represents cognitive concerns about the testing situation and consequences of failure, and ‘emotionality’, which refers to autonomic reactions to the test situation, such as nervousness, fear and physical discomfort. Test anxiety has been negatively correlated with students’ achievements and performance, school-related motivation, academic self-concepts and career advancement (Pekrun, Goetz, Titz& Perry, 2002). Therefore, test anxiety may be a burden to unleashing the true potential of students (Meijer, 2001). Rana and Mahmood’s (2010) results displayed that cognitive factor plays a bigger role in test anxiety than affective factors. This means that although test anxiety contributes to students’ underachievement and low performance, students can be trained to deal with factors causing test anxiety.  

Reducing test anxiety

Researches have focused on three main approaches towards treating test anxietycognitive, affective and behavioural (Hembree, 1988; Sarason & Sarason, 1990). 

Cognitive approach

According to the cognitive approach, the main source of test anxiety is the thinking disturbances that occur in test situations. This includes pressure of scoring high on tests, fear of passing a course, consequences of failing in test and incompatibility of preparation for test and demand of test. In order to reduce the anxiety, students are encouraged to change their negative involuntary association between the test situation and anxiety. They can do this through rational-emotional therapy, cognitive restructuring, systematic desensitization, relaxation training, and biofeedback training. Teachers, peers and parents can help students stay motivated to perform better without letting the expected consequences of failure replace the positive outcomes of making students’ performance compatible with their abilities and skills (Rana & Mahmood, 2010).

Behavioural approach 

The behavioural approach assumes that test anxiety occurs due to poor academic skills which students bring to test situations. Therefore, students are trained in study skills in order to end the anxiety (Rana & Mahmood, 2010). According to Martin and Elliot (2016), instead of using fear appeals as a motivational strategy, teachers can support students to set both achievable and ‘personal best goals’ over the year to increase motivation. In this way, students transfer their effort from studying for the test to learning for personal desire. This happens to be connected to reduced test anxiety (Ryan & Deci, 2000).  

Affective approach

According to the affective approach, the feelings experienced on or before the test also make students anxious. Students have stated that they feel uneasy, upset, nervous, tense and panic. These feelings occur no matter how extensive student’s preparation has been. This means that these feelings are not specific to tests, but this is anxiety experienced during any unforeseen endeavour during people’s lives. Students can benefit from training which includes minimizing test anxiety by creating opportunities to deal with unanticipated problem situations and letting students be exposed to more and more test situations. Another successful strategy is to educate students how to handle stress situations in academic life, which is expected to improve their achievements (Rana & Mahmood, 2010). In this sense, coping with test anxiety can be considered as a process of emotional regulation and that anxiety is an emotion experienced during examinations (Schutz & Davis, 2000; Pekrun, 2000).  

What works?

Some researchers have used these three approaches to develop a four-dimensional model of test anxiety, including worry, emotionality, interference and lack of confidence. These four dimensions relate to students’ ways of coping with pre-exam anxiety (Hodapp, 1996; Keith, HodappSchermelleh-Engel, Moosbrugger, 2003). Stober (2004) found that students use mainly three coping strategies: task-orientation and preparation, seeking social support, and avoidance, which are differentially connected to the four dimensions of test anxiety and have gender-specific relationships with coping strategiesFor example, test anxiety was closely related to seeking social support, worry has a strong relationship with task-orientation and preparation and low avoidance in females, emotionality is correlated to seeking social-support in male students and task-orientation and preparation in females, interference is related to avoidance and low task-orientation and preparation in both genders, and lack of confidence is correlated to avoidance in female students.  

In Kondo’s (1997) research, students pointed out 79 basic tactics for reducing test anxiety, which were grouped in five strategy types (Positive Thinking, Relaxation, Preparation, Resignation, and Concentration). Positive thinking is a cognitive strategy, which involves suppressing disturbing thought processes associated with assessments. Relaxation belongs to the affective approach and intends to relieve bodily tension related to emotional arousal. Preparation and Concentration can be regarded as behavioural strategies because they concentrate on behavioural components of test taking related to effective performance. Students also find seeking social support, avoidance, coaching/ guided imagery, self-instructional training, establishing purpose, affirmation, modalities, positive Anchors, mental simulations, use of humour, preparation of cheat sheet and study skills training as useful and contextually relevant strategies (Erbe2007; Berk & Nanda2006; Stober2004; Foster, Paulk, & Dastoor1999; Kondo1997).  

Zeidner (1998) found that combining relaxation techniques with cognitive methods influences self-reported test anxiety, but not academic performance (Dendato & Diener 1986; Cooley & Spiegler 1980). Similar results are also reported for Cognitive restructuring, positive self-instruction, imagination techniques and attentional training (Wachelka & Katz 1999; Arnkoff 1986; Wise & Haynes 1983; Cooley & Spiegler 1980). Combining relaxation techniques, systematic desensitization, imagination techniques and/or cognitive methods results in reducing anxiety and positively affecting academic performance (Dendato & Diener 1986; Harris & Johnson 1980). Zeidner (1998) adds that highly anxious students have troubles interpreting information and organizing it into larger chunks of meaning. They may also physically feel tired or exhausted during the examination process because they lack a healthy diet, good sleeping habits and routinely exercise. Therefore, students should be encouraged to maintain a healthy diet, exercise regularly and get enough sleep, especially during the test period. Furthermore, they should try to refrain from cramming, acquire good study habits and good test taking skills (Harris & Coy, 2003).  

Concluding words

High-anxious students should be encouraged to use cognitive, affective, and behavioural strategies as well as resignation in order to alleviate their stress and anxiety in test situations. To do this effectively, students can be helped by teachers, peers, parents and the administration of the educational organisation. Anxiety has many contributing factors, therefore, there are many strategies to manage and reduce it. The most effective are the global ones, which include several different practices (Ergene, 2003; von der Embse et al., 2013). Therefore, as a home-take message, students should be aware of the wide-range of options to reduce their test anxiety and they should be encouraged and supported by the social network available around them. 

How do students cope with test anxiety?

In this video, Miles Postlethwaite (Psychology student at the University of Dundee) shares how he deals with test anxiety.

About the Blog Post Author:

Maria Radeva is a third-year (soon-to-be forth-year) Psychology student at the University of Dundee. Her passion for Psychology started when she was in high school in Bulgaria, as she participated in many national Philosophy and Psychology student conferences, competitions and debates. Furthermore, her grandma was a well-known psychologist back home, so she knew this is the career she wants to pursue. She was not sure exactly which discipline would be the best for her, but after three years of studying different aspects of this field, she realised that she is most interested in Cognition and Emotion, Forensic Psychology, Clinical Psychology and Applied Psychology. Maria is curious and always tries to find articles, TedTalks and books that can help her acquire new knowledge and skills. She is grateful to be part of the TILE Network and meet people who are also innovative and thirsty for knowledge. She became a volunteer at the TILE Network because the education system in Scotland (both Secondary and Further Education) is very different to the one in Bulgaria and she started realising how important the educators’ approach is. This motivated her to read more and even suggest new practices, techniques and other ideas to her teachers. Furthermore, she has been involved in journalism (writing articles, short stories and preparing interviews) for quite a long time. Therefore, this volunteering opportunity is not only a chance for her to contribute to something bigger than student community, but also to communicate with professionals, acquire invaluable experience and knowledge, and of course to do what she loves – to write.

TILE Student Voice

This is a new section of the TILE Network that features the student voice in learning and teaching. We want to shine a light on the student perspective when it comes to teaching and learning practice and what better way to do this then letting the students express this themselves. This series also aims to give students to opportunity to engage in science communication and writing. Broadcasting scientific findings to a wider audience is a valuable skill and TILE provides students with the platform to practice that skill.

If you are a student and interested in contributing to the TILE Student Voice section, get in touch: tile@psy.gla.ac.uk

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