What is test anxiety and how can we support students when they experience it?

August 21, 2019

Written by: Leslie K. Taylor, PhD

As the first day of school approaches, parents and children gather their backpacks as educators finalize lesson plans and ready their classrooms. The new school year offers a fresh start for students as well as an opportunity for academic success. However, up to 40% of students[1] suffer from test anxiety, which contributes to lower grade point averages and decreased scores in standardized tests. Test anxiety is a multi-dimensional experience associated with cognitive (excessive worry about performance the night before or during the test; worry just after taking the test), physiological (heart racing, difficulty sleeping before the test), and behavioral components (avoidance of study)[2]. The cognitive dimension of test anxiety can be exceptionally difficult for students to cope with and reconcile. For example, despite preparing, students may believe that, while taking the test, they aren’t ready for it, and that the content is too challenging for them. Experiencing these thoughts during tests can result in diminished concentration on test material, making it more difficult for students to retrieve the information that they have studied[3] and do well on the test.

Students can experience text anxiety for a number of reasons. Some children have difficulty learning or struggle with paying attention, which intensifies anxiety about tests. Children who seem more concerned about making mistakes, such as playing poorly in sports, or performing in front of others, may also be at risk for test anxiety.

Fortunately, there are several actions parents and educators can take to support students experiencing test anxiety. Many children may not know how to study for tests and do not allow themselves enough preparation time. Helping children balance their schedules to accommodate study and providing education on the importance of multiple nights of study can result in substantial improvements. In addition, exposing children to practice tests through simulated test administration can also lessen anxiety. Both study and practice tests should mirror the format of the test. For example, studying for an essay test requires different preparation than study for multiple choice, and there are different test taking strategies for these items. Finally, educating children on how to notice signs of anxiety, relax their bodies and practicing them in the days and weeks prior to a test can also reduce anxiety and nervousness. Additional resources for having problem solving conversations with elementary[4] and upper school students[5] about test anxiety prevention, practice tests, and school accommodations are accessible through these websites. Discussion of how to learn from any setbacks in test taking can be used to develop and improve study strategies.

[1] Gregor, A. (2005). Examination anxiety: Live with it, control it or make it work for you? School Psychology International, 26, 617–635.

[2] see Lowe, P. A., Lee, S. W., Witteberg, K. M., Prichard, K. W., Luhr, M. E., Cullinan, C. M., . . . Janik, M. (2008). The Test Anxiety Inventory for Children and Adolescents (TAICA). Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 26, 215–230. https://doi.org/10.1177/0734282907303760

[3] Cassady, J. C. (2004). The influence of cognitive test anxiety across the learning–testing cycle. Learning and Instruction, 14, 569–592. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2004. 09.002

[4] https://www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/six-ways-to-help-kids-tackle-test-anxiety

[5] https://childmind.org/article/tips-for-beating-test-anxiety/