It’s normal for students to feel nervous before a test, however for some these feelings are debilitating. ‘Test anxiety’ refers to feelings of panic, dizziness, heart beating very fast, and so on, accompanied with thoughts dwelling on failure, that result from judging a test situation as highly threatening. Although some students might experience isolated tests as highly anxiety-provoking, it is those students who tend to become highly anxious in all, or most, tests that we are most concerned with.
There are two reasons why test anxiety is an important issue for schools to consider. First, test anxiety is related to poor mental health and wellbeing. Studies have shown that highly test-anxious adolescents report higher symptoms of emotion disorders (such as anxiety disorders and depression) than their low test-anxious counterparts and meet diagnostic thresholds for anxiety disorders. Highly test-anxious adolescents also report lower subjective wellbeing (comprising positive feelings and life satisfaction) and are at an elevated risk of suicide.
Second, there is a longstanding body of evidence showing that higher test anxiety is associated with lower academic achievement. Importantly, studies have shown this negative relation remains after statistically controlling for prior achievement and cognitive ability; students of all abilities are impacted. Test anxiety should not, therefore, be treated lightly. It can negatively impact mental health, wellbeing and achievement.
How schools can help students
Fortunately, test anxiety, even when persistent, is not inevitable and there are several practical steps that schools can take to help students learn to respond effectively to exam pressures. High-stakes tests can be associated with theatre and ritual (students lining up in rows to enter a large room in silence, sitting in rows, and so on). One straightforward step is for students to take tests under standardised conditions right from the beginning of secondary school at least once (if not more) per year. This helps to reduce the uncertainty and unfamiliarity of the test situation by the point that students take their high-stakes school leaving exams.
Many highly test-anxious students have a very low confidence in their study- and test-taking skills. A second practical step is to teach students how to prepare for tests in a cycle of self-regulated learning. Show students how to plan test preparation over a period of time using small achievable goals and instruct them into the numerous visual, auditory, and textual methods of learning.
Many students will enthusiastically plan and undertake test preparation but few check to see if their learning was effective. It is critical, therefore, for students to evaluate their learning. If learning was not effective, the material needs to be revised again or attempted using a different method of learning. The final part of this process is to set new goals including re-testing material; testing is an excellent way to strengthen memory. By adopting this approach, students will feel more in control of their learning and reduce their chances of failure which will, in turn, reduce test anxiety.
Similarly, showing students how marks are awarded for different types of exam questions and instructing students how to assess their work from an examiner’s perspective will increase confidence in test-taking skills, build feelings of control, and reduce anxiety.
There are many simple relaxation exercises that students can use to help control immediate reactions to anxiety. These include diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided visualisation. There are lots of useful descriptions of these relaxation exercises on the web and instructional videos on common video social media platforms. You can show highly test-anxious students how to use these techniques, which can be particularly helpful, for instance, at the beginning of a test if a student is experiencing a high degree of panic. Again, these anxiety management strategies help a student to build a sense of control over their anxiety.
A more involved, and long-term, approach is to use cognitive behavioural psychology to help students to identify and challenge unrealistic or biased ways of thinking that underpin the test anxiety. Many highly test-anxious students think in catastrophic ways (for example: ‘If I fail this exam, my whole life will be a failure’). Thoughts like this are unhelpful and serve only to magnify the threat. If such thoughts can be successfully challenged over a period of time, test anxiety will gradually subside.
Colleagues in schools may already have a very good indication of which students are highly test-anxious and may benefit from additional support. However, there will always be some students who keep their anxiety well hidden from others. It can be insightful for schools to undertake a simple screening procedure using one of the freely available instruments for assessing test anxiety (such as the Multidimensional Test Anxiety Scale). This approach can identify students who may not have been previously considered to be highly test-anxious.
There is much research that needs to be conducted for test anxiety. I am particularly interested in studying what the most effective mechanisms are for reducing test anxiety, what additional training teachers require in order to undertake intervention, and what is the most straightforward and practical way to identify those students who require help and/or intervention.
I spoke about my research into test anxiety at last month’s Cambridge Schools Conference Online, and you can now listen to a recording of my session on Cambridge International’s website. It includes some practical strategies to try out in the classroom, which I hope will help schools reduce severe test anxiety among their students and raise achievement.