Studies have consistently shown that test anxiety lowers performance. Ability, gender and grade level all appear to affect the level of test anxiety. Various treatments have been used to reduce anxiety. Meta-analysis of 562 studies was carried out by Ray Hembree of Adrian College. This analysis demonstrated that test performance and grades in school do improve when test anxiety is reduced.
Anxious students who become distracted by worries about their test performance, by self-criticism and by feeling unwell, suffer the most detrimental effects. Awareness of past poor performance also contributes to test anxiety.
Hembree’s purpose in this study was to integrate research findings regarding the nature, effects and treatment of test anxiety.
Nautre and effects of test anxiety
Test anxiety begins to appear during second grade and increases through fifth grade, at which point, it levels off. As children get older, poor performance, poor grades and grade retention all contribute to test anxiety.
Test-anxious students did poorly in high-expectation situations, whereas students with low levels of anxiety did well. Significantly, in situations where there were no expectations, or in reassuring circumstances, there was no difference in performance between the high and low anxiety groups. Recall of memorized material is strongly affected by anxiety and study skills appear to be inferior in test anxious students.
Teacher attitudes did not show a significant relationship to anxious-student performance. Teachers viewed as negative or unfriendly affected performance only moderately, while friendly, positive teachers did not reduce anxiety.
Black students showed higher level of anxiety in the lower grades, although this seemed to dissipate in the middle years. Hispanic students continued to show more test anxiety than white students throughout school.
Students with high levels of test anxiety have lower self-esteem and tend to feel vulnerable and controlled by outside forces. They become less sociable than their peers as they get older. They experience more encoding (learning) difficulty and more cognitive interference when tested.
Methods for reducing anxiety
Teachers are able to reduce test anxiety by giving item-by-item feedback of corect answers or by using a matching rather than a multiple-choice format.
Unobtrusive classical music played during testing significantly enhanced performance of test anxious students, but tended to depress performance for students with low levels of anxiety.
Counseling did not seem to effectively reduce test anxiety, nor did study skills training. Training in test taking skills improved performance for students who were weak in this area.
Behavioral treatments, such as “systematic desensitization”, were the most effective way to reduce test anxiety. Desensitization techniques include relaxation training, modeling, covert positive reinforcement and behavioral extinction. Behavioral treatments using densensitization, whether carried out individually or in groups, tended to significantly lower anxiety.
In summary, when tests were perceived as easy, test anxiety did not seem to be a factor in performance. Reducing distractions, providing memory support in the test format, giving low stress instructions, using background music and behavioral desensitization treatments seemed to improve performance for test anxious students. Improved test performance and grades serve to further reduce test anxiety.
The effect of treatment is lasting, so students who have been behaviorally trained to reduce their anxiety continue to have lower anxiety levels throughout their school careers.
Hembree concludes that anxiety interferes with both learning and performance on tests and that anxiety reduction through the use of behavioral treatments improves performance. He also reminds us that the IQ, aptitude and achievement scores on test anxious students are depressed due to anxiety and, therefore, these scores are not adequate measures of these students’ ability or knowledge. Since test anxiety is a learned condition that builds between grades 2 and 5, he calls for more research to develop better methods of testing which will inhibit the development of test anxiety.
Review of Educational Research Volume 58 Number 1 pp. 47.
Published in ERN November/DecemberVolume 1 Number 1