How to cope with Test Fear

Everyone has experienced some form of anxiety in their lives.

Cold sweats, increased heart rate, and shaky knees and hands are all signs and symptoms of anxiety. One particular form of anxiety that is important in schools today is test anxiety. Test anxiety (or test fear) is the feeling of uneasiness or worry about an exam, test or test situation (Gregor, 2005; Meijer, 2001). Students who experience test anxiety react badly to tests and exams and are more likely to perform badly on a test or exam (Shobe, Brewin & Carmack, 2005; Keogh & French, 2001). Approximately one third of students are thought to have at least some test anxiety (Whitaker Sena, Lowe & Lee, 2007; Huberty, 2009). Girls are more likely to experience test anxiety than boys (Stober, 2004) and students with learning disorders tend to experience worse test anxiety than students without learning disorders (Whitaker Sena, Lowe & Lee, 2007; Salend, 2011).

Originally psychologists believed that test anxiety was made up of two components: worry and emotionality.

Worry is defined as the negative thoughts about their performance in the test and whether or not they will fail, while emotionality is the physical experience of anxiety, such as tension or sweaty palms (Stober, 2004; Sharma & Sud, 1990; Hembree, 1988). As test anxiety research developed, it lead psychologists to believe that there are actually four components in test anxiety: worry, emotionality, interference and lack of confidence (Stober, 2004; Harpell & Andrews, 2012). Interference is defined as the thoughts that “disturb or interrupt performance during exams” (Stober, 2004) and distracts the student from the test or exam (Whitaker Sena, Lowe & Lee, 2007). Finally lack of confidence has been defined across different sources as self-preoccupation – thinking about how failing will affect the student and thinking about how the student feels about the exam (Matthews, Hillyard & Campbell, 1999; Sharma & Sud, 1990); or as social humiliation – what will my friends and family say about my results? (Whitaker Sena, Lowe & Lee, 2007).

There are many symptoms of test anxiety.

The most obvious one being that students don’t perform well in exams even though they are capable of doing better (Shobe, Brewin & Carmack, 2005, Akinsola & Nwajei, 2013, Hembree, 1988). Test anxiety is thought to cause a drop in test performance because it interferes with working memory (Shobe, Brewin & Carmack, 2005; Whitaker Sena, Lowe & Lee, 2007). This then leads to a reduction in motivation (Keogh & French, 2001; Huberty, 2009) and students becoming more prone to distraction (Keogh & French, 2001; Hembree, 1988). Students with high test anxiety tend to use emotion focused and avoidance coping strategies such as not studying or spending time with friends (Stober, 2004) and they use less effective study strategies and skills. They are also more likely to procrastinate or put off studying before an exam or test (Cassady, 2004; Bembenutty, 2008). Students have negative feelings towards tests (Hembree, 1988) and have a lower self-esteem than students with low test anxiety (Huberty, 2009). Students with high test anxiety even spend more time on tests than students with low test anxiety (Hembree, 1988).    

There are three main characteristics of general anxiety: cognitive, behavioral and physiological;

and each of these have different types of symptoms. Cognitive symptoms of anxiety include concentration, memory and attention problems. Students may be oversensitive and worry a lot. They may also have trouble solving problems. Students with behavioral symptoms of anxiety tend to be restless, and fidget. They try to avoid tasks such as tests or exams. They may have rapid speech and erratic behavior and may be irritable. They may not participate in class and may become perfectionistic. They may not complete tasks or will look for easy tasks instead. Finally students with anxiety may also experience physical symptoms. These symptoms may include a rapid heart rate, perspiration, tics, pain, headaches, tension, sleeping problems and even nausea or enuresis (wetting the bed – more likely for younger students) (Huberty, 2009). Test anxiety is a form of anxiety and so these symptoms might be present in the weeks leading up to tests and exams and may even be present during the exam or test. Teachers and parents should watch out for these symptoms and suggest that the student sees a psychologist about the root cause of these symptoms. Remember too, that girls are more likely to experience the physical symptoms while boys are more likely to have behavioral symptoms such as acting out (Harpell & Andrews, 2013). This means that it is sometimes more difficult for a teacher or parent to pick up anxiety in girls than it is in boys.

Psychologists have given a number of reasons for why test anxiety occurs.

Some suggest that parents who have unrealistic expectations of their child’s capabilities and put too much pressure on their child to perform may be a cause of test anxiety (Sharma & Sud, 1990). Sharma and Sud (1990) also suggest that continuous negative feedback may also be a reason that students experience test anxiety. Younger students are more likely to experience test anxiety than older students, females also experience more test anxiety than males (Hembree, 1988), and students with ADHD and learning disorders are also more likely to experience more test anxiety than students without learning disorders. Students may experience thoughts that are not relevant to the test or exam which can be distracting (Bandolos, Yates and Thorndike-Christ, 1995) and may believe things that are not true about the test or exam or about themselves (Wong, 2008). Students with test anxiety also believe that they are less competent and they have a lower self-esteem than those students with low test anxiety (Putwain, Woods & Symes, 2010; Dan & Raz, 2012). Test anxiety also increases when teachers use fear appeals (Putwain, Woods & Symes, 2010; Putwain & Best, 2012). Statements such as “If you do not pass this test, you will not pass the year” or “This test will decide whether you can do math or math literacy” are fear appeals. Teachers use them to attempt to scare students into studying. Related to fear appeals is the importance of a test. The more important the student believes the test or exam is the more likely he or she is to experience test anxiety (Eum & Rice, 2011).

So what can we, as teachers, do?

Many researchers suggest changing faulty thinking may be effective (Gregor, 2005; Akinsola & Nwajei, 2013; Whitaker Sena, Lowe & Lee, 2007), in other words, teach students that they are capable of taking tests and to think positively. Teachers can also try to increase a student’s self-confidence (Meijer, 2001). Teachers can do this by slowly increasing the difficulty in questions, so that students feel that they are capable of doing each question. Another suggestion is to keep the student task-focused (Matthews, Hillyard & Campbell, 1999; Powers, 1986). Remind learners, especially during tests, to remain focused on the test and not to think about other things, and hopefully this will stop them from thinking negative thoughts.

Teachers can also provide training in test taking skills.

Teach students time management, how to plan essays, to pick easier test items first, highlight important information, what question words mean and how to answer different kinds of questions (Matthews, Hillyard & Campbell, 1999; Salend, 2011). Another way students can learn to deal with time management is to use practice tests or past papers. They can start by not doing the tests according to time and then lead up to doing the tests according to time allocation so that they can “desensitize” themselves to the time pressure (Powers, 1986; Salend, 2011).  Teachers should make sure that there are no distractions. Music has also been proven to have no effect on test anxiety (Hembree, 1988).

Webster-Nelson and Knight (2010) asked students to write a paragraph about their past successes (be it academic, sport or otherwise) before their exam. They found that this lowered the students’ test anxiety and allowed them to perform better on the test than those students who did not write about their past successes. Shobe, Brewin and Carmack (2005) did a simple5 minute visualization exercise where students were asked to imagine themselves in their favorite place. This helped the students to relax before the test. Again they found that the students who did the visualization exercise had less test anxiety and performed better on the test than those students who did not do the visualization exercise.

The website wright.edu gives several suggestions for students who have test anxiety. Before the exam students should find out how they will be tested and should try to prepare themselves by practicing those kinds of questions. They should not leave studying to the last minute and should learn and know the material thoroughly. Students should know that reading through the work does not count as studying. Students should set goals that are realistic and that they know they can achieve. They should get a good night’s sleep and make sure that they eat a proper meal before the exam. They should also visualize their success. During the exam, the website suggests that students try to think positive thoughts throughout the exam and to view the exam as a way to show off what they know. Students should remember that this particular exam will not change their future in any way. Students must read instructions carefully and slowly and decide how long they will spend on each question and which questions they will answer first. If the student has negative thoughts he or she should immediately deal with them and try to replace them with more positive thoughts.

Many researchers have found that a reduction in test anxiety means an increase in test or exam marks (see Hembree, 1988 for a review). Students with test anxiety should know that they are not alone – more than one third of their class is likely to have test anxiety. There are many ways to deal with test anxiety and teachers should choose the methods that work best in their classroom. Some students may find some methods more effective than others. What are some of the ways that you have used to try to help your students with test anxiety?

To help with test anxiety check out the MathsatSHARP article on How to Study Effectively to help you with your study techniques.


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