An estimated 40% of students experience some form of test anxiety, from mild to severe, throughout their academic career. The causes vary, from acute situational causes like lack of preparation or high-pressure testing situations, to mental and emotional causes, like fear of failure, poor test history, low self-esteem, or viewing grades as a reflection of self worth.
The symptoms of test anxiety likewise vary widely from physical symptoms like headache and rapid heartbeat to emotional symptoms like fear and depression. These can occur acutely or for days or weeks before a test.
Some of the most troubling and impactful symptoms are the behavioral and cognitive symptoms like difficulty concentrating and blanking out on answers to the test despite thorough preparation, because they create a negative feedback loop of poor test results that lead to more test anxiety. In some cases, test anxiety can become so severe that students will drop out of school in order to avoid failing a test. In some students, behavioral symptoms like substance abuse or self-harm can cause even greater issues.
Researchers in Education Psychology have determined that, beyond negatively impacting the emotional well-being of students, test anxiety is also a strong predictor of poor long-term academic performance. Furthermore, the researchers found that focusing solely on emotional coping techniques to combat test anxiety–such as mindfulness and relaxation techniques–did not tangibly change those results. However, a more multifaceted approach to combating test anxiety, particularly with the support of instructors, can positively influence results.
So, what can educators do to help students?
Part of anxiety is often a sense of isolation, a belief that everyone else has everything under control. Discuss with your students the prevalence of test anxiety and help to destigmatize it. Odds are at least a third of your students will have some experience with test anxiety and many may not realize how common that is. Naming and discussing the anxiety can help to dispel its power.
Students can view assessments as challenges or trials, with their instructor as their adversary. Make it clear that you are your students’ partner and guide in their education, not their foe--you may utilize item analysis to inform your exam design and uphold student learning. Offer to support students as they prepare for assessments. Sometimes the simple act of explaining the purpose of an assessment, which can seem obvious to the instructor, can help students reframe the assessment and their attitude toward it.
Often, instructors lean heavily on student disability services to support students with diagnosed test anxiety, but often those resources are overburdened or difficult to navigate, only heightening the experience of anxiety. If possible, work with your students individually to see if simple accommodations in the classroom can help, as opposed to burdening the students with solving the problems on their own. Gradescope’s Online Assignments help instructors prioritize accessibility and flexibility, with features like student-specific time limit extensions that make it easy for instructors to accommodate individual students’ needs.
Also keep in mind that students will excel at different types of assessments. Offer a variety of assessment styles as well as low stakes and high stakes assessment to accommodate learning differences and to gain insights into student learning outside of high stakes assessment. This, additionally, offers you greater insight into student learning via item analysis.
Discuss the format of in-class and online assessments in advance, especially prior to the first assessment of the semester. If possible, offer a preview of the exam, either using past years’ exams or sample questions. Often, knowing what to expect can help alleviate test anxiety. You can even offer a low- or no-stakes practice exam. With Gradescope, online assessments are simple to administer and grade as part of test prep and to increase feedback loops.
Studies have shown that perception has a marked impact on test anxiety, with perceived difficulty and test consequences leading to higher test anxiety. Instructors can help by promoting a supportive academic environment generally, and creating a classroom culture focused on growth and learning. Reinforce the idea that assessments are meant to do just that: assess students’ knowledge, not to punish any knowledge gaps. Test anxiety can result from a skewed perspective, like a belief that the exam is “make-or-break” and that their future hinges on a given test. Getting proper perspective can help students stay clear-headed.
Set aside some time early in the semester to discuss test preparation, especially with younger students. Discuss creating a study plan and maintaining a healthy perspective. Emphasize the importance of holistic preparation: encourage students to focus on their physical and mental health in addition to studying the material. Getting a good night’s rest and a healthy breakfast support success, as does regular exercise and hydration. Sometimes, going to bed on time is more important than one last cram session, assuming your students followed their study plan.
Instructor support is critical in helping students overcome test anxiety. These steps can be easily implemented to effectively help your students perform their best on exams in your course and throughout their academic careers.
Want to help students increase feedback loops and lower test anxiety?