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Test Anxiety: How to Help Students Overcome It

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Dec 8, 2010

Anxiety is a basic human emotion consisting of fear and uncertainty that typically appears when an individual perceives an event as being a threat to the ego or self-esteem (Sarason, 1988). In some instances, such as avoiding dangerous situations, anxiety can be helpful. However when taken to extremes, it may produce unwarranted results. One of the most threatening events that causes anxiety in students today is testing. When students develop an extreme fear of performing poorly on an examination, they experience test anxiety. Test anxiety is a major factor contributing to a variety of negative outcomes including psychological distress, academic underachievement, academic failure, and insecurity (Hembree, 1988). Many students have the cognitive ability to do well on exams but may not do so because of high levels of test anxiety. Because of the societal emphasis placed on testing, this could potentially limit their educational and vocational opportunities (Zeidner, 1990).

Characteristics of Test Anxiety

Test anxiety is composed of three major components: cognitive, affective, and behavioral. Students who experience test anxiety from the cognitive perspective are worriers lacking self confidence. They may be preoccupied with negative thoughts, doubting their academic ability and intellectual competence (Sarason & Sarason, 1990).

Furthermore, they are more likely to overemphasize the potential negative results and feel helpless when in testing situations (Zeidner, 1998). Some students may feel the need to answer every question on the test correctly. When this does not occur they may think of themselves as being incompetent, thus fueling negative thoughts such as, "I knew I was not going to pass this test," "I know I am going to make a poor grade," or "Everyone knows I am not smart." In order for students to have the best opportunity for academic success, negative thinking must be minimized and controlled.

From the affective perspective, test anxiety causes some students to experience physiological reactions such as increased heart rate, feeling nauseated, frequent urination, increased perspiration, cold hands, dry mouth, and muscle spasms (Zeidner, 1998). These reactions may be present before, during, and even after the test is completed. In conjunction with the physiological reactions, emotions such as worry, fear of failure, and panic may be present. When students are not able to control their emotions, they may experience higher levels of stress, thereby making it more difficult for them to concentrate.

Test-anxious students express anxiety behaviorally by procrastinating and having inefficient study and test-taking skills. Zeidner (1998) contends that test-anxious students have a more difficult time interpreting information and organizing it into larger patterns of meaning. In addition, some students may physically feel tired or exhausted during test administration because they do not have a healthy diet, have poor sleeping habits, and fail to routinely exercise.

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