Test Anxieties: A Barrier to Learning Assessment

Back in Chicago, when I was a teaching assistant in General Chemistry, the professor used the word "party" whenever referring to an exam inside the classroom. With every exam, the professor also added humorous cartoons on the first page. The purpose is to somehow relieve test anxiety which significantly impairs a student's academic performance. Taking an exam seriously and preparing for it is good. However, worrying about an exam needlessly with particular emphasis on scores as measures of success or failure is harmful. This is test anxiety. With education reforms, tests serve as measures of learning outcomes. Test scores are sought to gauge whether a given educational reform is working or not. With higher stakes, greater attention is given to scores in these tests. When tests are used not just to assess a student's learning, but also the future of an educational program, the pressure becomes higher. Grades, which are partly, if not dominantly determined by scores in these exams, can affect a student's future. Admissions to special programs in high schools, admission to an elite university, offer of employment from a good firm can depend on grades. Thus, society places a lot of premium on these tests. Being concerned with exams is healthy. These are necessary tools for assessment. However, when a student becomes more afraid of failure instead of seeing the exam as a challenge, a possibility to shine, then a debilitating test anxiety comes into play.

A classic paper of Ray Hembree shows that test anxiety can result in average scores in exams that are 12 percentile lower than those of students who do not suffer from excessive worrying. This is equivalent to half a standard deviation.
Correlates, Causes, Effects, and Treatment of Test Anxiety
Ray HembreeAdrian College
Results of 562 studies were integrated by meta-analysis to show the nature, effects, and treatment of academic test anxiety. Effect sizes were computed through the method invented by Glass (Glass, McGaw, & Smith, 1981). Correlations and effect-size groups were tested for consistency and significance with inferential statistics byHedges and Olkin (1985). Test anxiety (TA) causes poor performance. It relates inversely to students’ self-esteem and directly to their fears of negative evaluation, defensiveness, and other forms of anxiety. Conditions (causes) giving rise to differential TA levels include ability, gender, and school grade level. A variety of treatments are effective in reducing test anxiety. Contrary to prior perceptions, improved test performance and grade point average (GPA) consistently accompany TA reduction.
Students usually develop test anxiety over the years although elementary students may exhibit these very early when excessive pressure is placed on them to perform well. The Unites States Department of Education provided recommendations to help children improve in test-taking. These are their recommendations for overcoming test anxiety:

It does not help to tell the child to relax, to think about something else, or stop worrying. But there are ways to reduce test anxiety. Encourage your child to do these things:
  • Space studying over days or weeks. (Real learning occurs through studying that takes place over a period of time.) Understand the information and relate it to what is already known. Review it more than once. (By doing this, the student should feel prepared at exam time.)
  • Don't "cram" the night before--cramming increases anxiety which interferes with clear thinking. Get a good night's sleep. Rest, exercise, and eating well are as important to test-taking as they are to other schoolwork.
  • Read the directions carefully when the teacher hands out the test. If you don't understand them, ask the teacher to explain.
  • Look quickly at the entire examination to see what types of questions are included (multiple choice, matching, true/ false, essay) and, if possible, the number of points for each. This will help you pace yourself.
  • If you don't know the answer to a question, skip it and go on. Don't waste time worrying about it. Mark it so you can identify it as unanswered. If you have time at the end of the exam, return to the unanswered question(s).
Of course, prevention is better than intervention so these are the recommendations for parents/teachers to avoid the development of test anxiety in students:

You can be a great help to your children if you will observe these do's and don't's about tests and testing:
  • Don't be too anxious about a child's test scores. If you put too much emphasis on test scores, this can upset a child.
  • Do encourage children. Praise them for the things they do well. If they feel good about themselves, they will do their best. Children who are afraid of failing are more likely to become anxious when taking tests and more likely to make mistakes.
  • Don't judge a child on the basis of a single test score. Test scores are not perfect measures of what a child can do. There are many other things that might influence a test score. For example, a child can be affected by the way he or she is feeling, the setting in the classroom, and the attitude of the teacher. Remember, also, that one test is simply one test.
  • Meet with your child's teacher as often as possible to discuss his/her progress. Ask the teacher to suggest activities for you and your child to do at home to help prepare for tests and improve your child's understanding of schoolwork. Parents and teachers should work together to benefit students.
  • Make sure your child attends school regularly. Remember, tests do reflect children's overall achievement. The more effort and energy a child puts into learning, the more likely he/she will do well on tests.
  • Provide a quiet, comfortable place for studying at home.
  • Make sure that your child is well rested on school days and especially the day of a test. Children who are tired are less able to pay attention in class or to handle the demands of a test.
  • Give your child a well rounded diet. A healthy body leads to a healthy, active mind. Most schools provide free breakfast and lunch for economically disadvantaged students. If you believe your child qualifies, talk to the school principal.
  • Provide books and magazines for your youngster to read at home. By reading new materials, a child will learn new words that might appear on a test. Ask your child's school about a suggested outside reading list or get suggestions from the public library.
Annie Murphy Paul recently wrote for Time magazine, "Relax, It's Only a Test", and on her blog, "From the Brilliant Report: How to Eliminate Test Anxiety". Almost a year ago, Paul also wrote an article in the New York Times, "How to Be a Better Test-Taker" and quoted psychologist Sein Beillock:
“When students are anxious about how they’ll do on an exam,” says Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, “their worries use up some of their working memory capacity, leaving less of this cognitive horsepower to apply to the task at hand.”
Paul also provides some recommendations to deal with test anxiety:
  • Unload on paper - This is having students spend ten minutes writing about their thoughts and feelings immediately before taking a test.
  • Affirm your values - This is a conscious effort to make students remember what matters most.
  • Engage in relaxation exercises - This involves both breathing as well as stretching exercises. 
The above may seem contradictory to the recommendations made by the US Department of Education almost twenty years ago but recent studies do show that the above steps can lead to a reduction in anxiety and better performance in exams. Paul is citing various peer-reviewed publications on this topic. And with elementary students, a study likewise shows that interventions are helpful in boosting the academic performance of students who are suffering from test anxiety (Miller, M., J. Morton, R. Driscoll & K. A. Davis (2006). Accelerated Desensitization with Adaptive Attitudes and Test Gains with 5th Graders.  Education Resources Information Center, 14pp)

These interventions probably do work, but preventing test anxiety in the first place is a far better objective. Exams are very useful tools for assessment. Parents, teachers and the students simply must not take the scores as measures of one's worth. In 2011, Phyllis L.M. Haynes also provided advice to avoid test anxiety in "Test anxiety: Lions, tigers, and bears…oh, my!" and these are in line with the recommendations of the US Department of Education. 


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