Test anxiety

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Test anxiety is a combination of perceived physiological over arousal, feelings of worry and dread, self-depreciating thoughts, tension, and somatic symptoms that occur during test situations.[1] It is a physiological condition in which people experience extreme stress, anxiety, and discomfort during and/or before taking a test. These responses can drastically hinder an individual's ability to perform well and negatively affects their social emotional and behavioural development and feelings about themselves and school.[2] Test anxiety is prevalent amongst the student populations of the world, and has been studied formally since the early 1950s beginning with researchers George Mandler and Seymour Sarason.[3]

Test anxiety can also be labeled as anticipatory anxiety, situational anxiety or evaluation anxiety. Some anxiety is normal and often helpful to stay mentally and physically alert.[citation needed] Although, when one experiences too much anxiety it can result in emotional or physical distress, difficulty concentrating, and emotional worry. Test anxiety has been shown to have a consistently negative relationship with test performance, and test-anxious students are found to perform about 12 percent below their non-anxious peers.[4]

Researchers suggest that between 25 to 40 percent of students experience test anxiety.[5] Students with disabilities and students in gifted educations classes tend to experience high rates of text anxiety. Students who experience test anxiety tend to be easily distracted during a test, experience difficulty with comprehending relatively simple instructions, and have trouble organizing or recalling relevant information.[1]


Theory of Test Anxiety

Anxiety is defined as the “psychological mechanism whereby the current intensification of a dangerous drive results in the elicitation of defences.” [6] George Mandler and Seymour Sarason (1952), developed the theory that anxiety present in testing situations is an important determinate of test performance. Individuals that become highly anxious during tests typically perform more poorly on tests than low-test anxious persons, especially when tests are given under stressful evaluative conditions such as a post-secondary exam. The feelings of forgetfulness, or drawing a “blank” are developed because of anxiety-produced interference between relevant responses and irrelevant responses generated from the person’s anxious state. The difference in performance of a high-anxious test taker compared to a low-anxious test taker is largely due to the difference in their ability to focus on the tasks required.[7] A low-anxious test taker is able to focus greater attention on the tasks required of them while taking the test, while a high-anxious test taker is focused on their internal self, and the anxiety they’re feeling. Anxious test takers do not perform adequately on the test as their attention is divided between themselves and the test. Therefore, students with high test anxiety are unable to focus their full attention on the test. Furthermore, anxiousness is evoked when a student believes that the evaluative situation, such as an assessment, exceeds his or her intellectual, motivational, and social capabilities.[8] Researchers Putwain, Woods & Symes (2010), found that a low academic self-concept was associated with higher worry and tension about their abilities to do well on a test. A student's metacognitive beliefs play an important role in the maintenance of negative self-beliefs.[8]

Anxiety reactions can be generalized from previous experiences to testing situations.[9] Feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, anticipations of punishment or loss of status and esteem manifest anxiety responses. As well, the presence of an audience can debilitate the performance of high anxious test takers and increase the performance of low anxious test takers. Interestingly, persons who score high on anxiety scales tend to describe themselves in negative, self-devaluing terms. Highly anxious test takers also blame themselves for their failure significantly more than low anxious test takers.

The Anxiety Response

Researchers believe that feelings of anxiety arise to prepare a person for threats.[10] In humans, anxiety symptoms are distributed along a continuum and different symptom levels of anxiety predict outcomes. Responses consist of increased heart rate, stress hormone secretion, restlessness, vigilance, and fear of a potentially dangerous environment.[10] Anxiety prepares the body physically, cognitively, and behaviourally to detect and deal with threats to survival. As a result, a person’s body begins to hyperventilate to allow more oxygen to enter the bloodstream, divert blood to muscles, and sweat to cool the skin.[10] In individuals, the degree to which an anxiety response is developed is based on the probability of bad things happening in the environment and the individual’s ability to cope with them. In the case of test taking, this might be a failing exam grade that prevents the student from being accepted to a post-secondary institution. A person's beliefs about their own competencies is a form of self-knowledge, which plays an important role in analyzing situations that might be threatening. When a person has feelings of low competence about their abilities they are likely to anticipate negative outcomes such as failure, under uncertain conditions. Thus, evaluative situations including tests and exams, are perceived as more threatening by students who have low competencies.[8]

Power of Working Memory

The cognitive component of test anxiety is widely believed to have a negative impact on test performance through occupying working memory space. When a student is worrying about failing the test or not having the correct answer to a question, they are using up valuable working memory space in the brain. This leaves less space for the working memory to remember facts and concepts that were learned. Therefore, the student is more likely to perform worse in high stress situations. Sian Beilock is the author of the book “Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to.” She examines why people who do well in practice, but “choke” in stressful situations. She says our “working memory plays an important role in most of what we do on a daily basis” Remembering a phone number or navigating while driving, all involve working memory processes. The amount of working memory a person has (it varies among individuals) often predicts how well they will perform in activities that are imperative for academic success (i.e. problem solving and reading comprehension). Surprisingly, high-powered students have been found to perform at the level of low-powered students when under pressure. So why do students with the most working memory fail under pressure? Beilock found that under low-stress conditions, high-working memory individuals are likely to go through all the steps required in order to problem solve because they have the high cognitive power needed to compute answers this way. On the other hand, individuals with lower working memory were likely to rely on shortcuts to answer similar questions, which don’t require a lot of effort and are essentially no better than good guesses. Under pressure however, the majority of high powered- students were found to panic and switch to the short cuts that low power students normally use. When a student experiences test anxiety, the anxiety they are feeling takes up valuable working memory space, preventing an individual from accessing their full problem solving approaches. Sometimes they end up taking “short cuts” or making guesses which leads to poorer test performance when it counts the most.[11]

Symptoms and Causes

A student of the University of Madras, with his hair tied to a nail in the wall, to prevent him from falling asleep (1905)

There is a difference between generalized anxiety disorders (GAD) and test anxiety. GAD is characterized by "trait anxiety" which results in a person experiencing high levels of stress across a wide range of situations. In contrast, people with test anxiety have a "state anxiety" which results in high levels of nervousness specific to testing.[12]

There are a variety of variables that cause test anxiety to occur. These variables typically vary from student to student and may include factors such as:

Parents are often perceived by students as being a source of pressure, especially when they place a strong emphasis on obtaining high achievement scores on examinations and assessments instead of on the effort made. Research shows that parental pressure is associated with greater worry, test irrelevant thoughts, and stronger bodily symptoms relating to anxiety during a test.[8]

Other causes of test anxiety may include fear of failure, procrastination, and previous poor test performance.[13] As well, characteristics of the test environment such as: nature of the task, difficulty, atmosphere, time constraints, examiner characteristics, mode of administration and physical setting can affect the level of anxiousness felt by the student.[8] Researchers Putwain & Best (2011),[14] examined test performance among elementary children when the teacher put pressure on the students in an attempt to create a more high stress environment. Their findings showed that students performed worse in high threat situations and experienced more test anxiety and worrisome thoughts than when in a low threat environment.

Symptoms of test anxiety can range from moderate to severe. "Students who exhibit moderate symptoms are still able to perform relatively well on exams. Other students with severe anxiety will often experience panic attacks."[15]

Common physical symptoms include: headache, upset stomach, feeling of fear, feeling of dread, shortness of breath, sweating, pacing or fidgeting, crying, racing thoughts and blanking out

During states of excitement or stress, the body releases adrenaline. Adrenaline is known to cause physical symptoms that accompany test anxiety, such as increased heart rate, sweating, and rapid breathing.[16] In many cases having adrenaline is a good thing.[citation needed] It is helpful when dealing with stressful situations, ensuring alertness and preparation.[citation needed] But for some people the symptoms are difficult or impossible to handle, making it impossible to focus on tests. .

Test Anxiety consists of:

Measurement scales

Early scales, by authors such as Charles Spielberger, tended to focus on physiological and somatic features and on worry, commonly referred to as "emotionality,"[18] while more recent offerings, such as that by Cassady & Johnson, emphasize cognitive processes.[19] "Test anxiety" for these authors consists of physiological and mental processes, and impaired test performance is seen as the result.

The "Children's Test Anxiety Questionnaire" is specifically designed to measure test anxiety in children 8–12 years of age. It provides scores for three dimensions of test anxiety: "worrisome thoughts concerning failure (i.e. 'when I take tests, I worry about failing'), automatic reactions concerning students' general and specific somatic indications of anxiety (i.e. 'when I take tests, my heart beats fast'), and off-task behaviours concerning nervous habits and distracting behaviours (i.e. 'when I take tests, I play with my pencil')" [20]


Before medical treatment a doctor must perform a diagnostic evaluation to determine whether symptoms are due to a specific anxiety disorder or a physical problem. Medication will not cure anxiety disorders but will keep them under control. Drug treatments for anxiety disorders work by downplaying threat detecting mechanisms in the body.[10] Consulting a physician before using any of the medical remedies is generally encouraged.[21]

Medication combined with psychotherapy has shown to be the most effective treatment approach for people suffering from anxiety disorders.[citation needed]


During a Test


To gain an accurate assessment of student comprehension, instructors should be concerned with minimizing the effects of test anxiety. Instructors might offer "second chances" post test, familiarize students with test format and grading scheme, and lower the impact of any one test.[26] If students have greater confidence in their test-taking skills, they are more likely to be comfortable and relaxed when the testing does occur. Having an intentional thinking strategy should help student performance improve.

In some cases, approaches that focus on skills such as test-taking strategies rather than anxiety reduction have been shown to be more effective in enhancing academic performance. For some individuals, poor academic performance is due to skill deficits, which could include problems in:

Skill deficits may lead to poor performance directly (failure to adequately learn the material) or indirectly (awareness of being ill-prepared causes anxiety that, in turn, leads to poor performance). Therefore, the most effective interventions were found to be those that combined skill-focused strategies (i.e. study skills training, test-taking skills) with cognitive (i.e. cognitive restructuring) or behavioural approaches (i.e. relaxation training, systematic desensitization).[28]

"Pressure training" or practicing under stress can help people from choking under pressure because people who practice this way learn to stay calm and collected during stressful situations such as a test.[11]

While excellent anxiety-reduction advice is easy to find, it may not be as effective as some might wish. Research suggests that students do not gain as much from reading self-help material as students would from the same material received in therapy or in a participatory group setting.[29]

Contributing factors

Test anxiety is known to develop into a vicious cycle. After experiencing test anxiety on one test, the student may become so fearful of it happening again they become more anxious and upset than they would normally, or even than they experienced on the previous test. If the cycle continues without acknowledgement, or the student seeking help, the student may begin to feel helpless in the situation.[30]

People who experience test anxiety often have parents or siblings who have test anxiety or other types of anxiety. Anxiety does seem to have some genetic components.[31]

See also


  1. NIMH. "Treatment of Anxiety". The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/anxiety-disorders/treatment-of-anxiety-disorders.shtml. Retrieved 4 April 2012.


  1. ^ a b Zeidner M. (1998). "Test anxiety: The state of the art". New York, NY: Plenum
  2. ^ a b Salend, S. J. (2012). Teaching students not to sweat the test. Phi Delta Kappan, 93(6), 20-25.
  3. ^ The original research and development of the TAQ (Test Anxiety Questionnaire) was conducted by Mandler, G., & Sarason, S. B. (1952). A study of anxiety and learning. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 47, 166-173.
  4. ^ (Hembree, R. (1988). Correlates, Causes, Effects and Treatment of Test Anxiety. Review of Educational Research. 58, 1, 47–77; Cassady & Johnson 2001; McDonald 2001)
  5. ^ Cassady, J.C. (2010). Test anxiety: Contemporary theories and implications for learning. In J.C. Cassady (Ed.), Anxiety in schools: The causes, consequences, and solutions for academic anxieties (pp. 7-26). New York, NY: Peter Lang,
  6. ^ Rosenwald, G.C (1961). The assessment of anxiety in psychological experimentation: a theoretical reformulation and test. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 62(3): 666-673
  7. ^ Wine, J. (1971). Test anxiety and direction of attention. Psychological Bulletin, 76(2): 92-104
  8. ^ a b c d e Putwain, D.W., Woods, K.A., Symes, W. (2010). Personal and situational predictors of test anxiety of students in post-compulsory education. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 137-160
  9. ^ Mandler, G. & Sarson, S. B. (1952). A study of anxiety and learning. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology,47, 166-173
  10. ^ a b c d DePhil, M.B., Brilot, B., Nettle, D. (2011). Anxiety: An Evolutionary Approach. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 56(12):707-715
  11. ^ a b Beilock, S.(2010). Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to. New York: Free Press
  12. ^ sady, J.C. (2010). Test anxiety: Contemporary theories and implications for learning. In J.C. Cassady (Ed.), Anxiety in schools: The causes, consequences, and solutions for academic anxieties (pp. 7-26). New York, NY: Peter Lang
  13. ^ ADAA. "Test Anxiety". Anxiety Disorder Association of America. http://www.adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/children/test-anxiety. Retrieved 26 April 2012.
  14. ^ Putwain D.W., Best, N. (2011). Fear appeals in the primary classroom: effects on test anxiety and test grade. Learning and Individual Differences, 21 580-584
  15. ^ Cherry, Kendra. "Test Anxiety Symptoms". The New York Times Company. http://psychology.about.com/od/mentalhealth/a/test-anxiety-symptoms.htm. Retrieved 26 April 2012.
  16. ^ Lyness, D'Arcy. [from http://kidshealth.org/teen/school_jobs/school/test_anxiety.html "Test Anxiety"]. The Nemours Foundation.. from http://kidshealth.org/teen/school_jobs/school/test_anxiety.html. Retrieved 4 April 2012.
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  18. ^ cf Charles Spielberger
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  22. ^ a b c Lochridge, Eric. "Drugs For Test Anxiety". Livestrong. http://www.livestrong.com/article/138836-drugs-test-anxiety/. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
  23. ^ a b ADAA. "Tes Anxiety". ADAA. http://www.adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/children/test-anxiety. Retrieved 4 April 2012.
  24. ^ a b Scott, Elizabeth. "Test Anxiety-How To Deal With Test Anxiety and Actually Do Better On Tests". The New York Times Company. http://stress.about.com/od/studentstress/a/test_anxiety524.htm. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
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  26. ^ Wilbert J. Mckeachie and Marilla Svinicki's "Teaching Tips" 12th edition, pg. 110;
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