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Test anxiety: an introduction for educators

GCSEs are arguably the most important exams that all students sit. And with them, undeniably, a certain level of anxiety and stress will set in for your Year 11s. But when does “a certain level” become too much? And what separates test anxiety from normal levels of anxiety?

What is test anxiety?

Test anxiety is a condition in which a person experiences excessive levels of stress, nervousness, and anxiety before and during an exam. This often impairs learning as well as test performance, and may cause a series of physical and behavioural symptoms.

Test anxiety was first recognised by psychologists as early as the 1950s, who coined the term and described the two main aspects of test anxiety:

  • Cognitive – including negative thoughts about the test itself (‘I can’t do maths’, for example) or “test-irrelevant” thoughts such as, ‘my family will be so disappointed in me’.
  • Emotional – encompassing all associated feelings with test anxiety – dread, panic etc. – as well as any physical symptoms that manifest from the emotional response, such as nausea and excessive sweating.

How does test anxiety affect students and their performance?

The cognitive aspect of test anxiety has the most significant impact on test performance, rather than the emotional aspect. These types of intrusive thoughts can interfere with a student’s attention levels, hinder their recall ability, and impede their ability to process multi-step exam questions.

Test anxiety can also affect students before they even set foot in the examination hall. Studies suggest that test anxiety can make it harder for students to acquire knowledge, making learning in general less effective which restricts a student’s potential.

According to research (Putwain & Daly, 2014), test anxiety may affect female students significantly more than males. 22.5% of female Key Stage 4 students reported themselves to be highly ‘test anxious’, versus 10.3% of male students. However, it is possible that the actual figure for male students is higher, but they are simply more likely to try and mask their anxieties.

How can teachers help students with test anxiety?

There are a number of strategies that teachers can try to help students who suffer from test anxiety. However, it’s important to remember that teachers are not mental health professionals – and any interventions should be considered in accordance with your school’s usual procedures.

Exam preparedness

A better-prepared student may also be a student with less anxiety. Helping students to build exam-specific skills can help reduce stress and anxiety through familiarity and feeling more supported. This might include:

  • Familiarisation with the exam room and exam conditions;
  • Completing personal details on the front of the exam;
  • Exam paper layout including any resource or formulae booklets;
  • Different types of revision techniques;
  • Timekeeping advice and tips.

Talk openly about emotions

Engage in direct and open dialogue with your class about the stresses of the exam period. This can help to normalise these emotions for your students, as well as identify those students who may have test anxiety and may require additional support.

Frame motivation positively

The use of “fear appeals” in motivation can be effective for students with strong self-belief. But for others, it can factor into their anxieties – so try to use positive phrasing. For example: rather than suggesting that a student aspiring to become a doctor might not get into medical school if they don’t revise, you could encourage them to concentrate on revision by saying that it will bring them another step closer to medical school.

Further reading

Ofqual blog – What can schools do about examination and test anxiety? https://ofqual.blog.gov.uk/2019/03/15/what-can-schools-do-about-examination-and-test-anxiety/

A review of the literature on anxiety for educational assessments https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/a-review-of-the-literature-on-anxiety-for-educational-assessments

British Psychological Society – Test anxiety makes it harder to absorb information while preparing for an exam https://www.bps.org.uk/research-digest/test-anxiety-makes-it-harder-absorb-information-while-preparing-exam