Test Anxiety Anyone?

I have found that many more students talk to me after an exam than before. Many more.

The conversations span all kinds of test-related topics, chief among them, anxiety. For example, any number of students will tell me, “I’m not a good test taker.” The bolder ones will flat out say, “anxiety kept me from studying properly before the test” or “anxiety kept me from doing my best on the test.”

So it’s good to know that help for anxious test-takers may finally be at hand.
Ramirez and Beilock published a paper in Science (Jan 14, 2011, p. 211) titled, “Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom“. These researchers conducted two laboratory and two randomized field experiments involving student performance on high-stakes exams. A psychological intervention (“a brief expressive writing assignment that occurred immediately before” the test) was evaluated for its ability to reduce student anxiety and boost performance. According to them, “simply writing about one’s worries before a high-stakes exam can boost test scores.”

Before you rush into this, however, you should also read a letter from Lang and Lang that appeared several months later (Science, May 13, 2011, p. 791) This letter, “Practical Implications of Test Anxiety Tools,” challenges some of Ramirez et al. findings and recommendations. According to Lang et al., “students who have a high cognitive test anxiety do not engage in the task because they underestimate their probability for success and consequently do not fully engage in solving the problems at hand.” Anxious students do not worry during the exam. Instead, they shut down. They also argue that an intervention like “writing about one’s worries” could be detrimental to students with low test anxiety. The Langs’ letter is immediately followed by a rebuttal from Beilock and Ramirez on p. 792 of the same issue.

There’s no doubt that test anxiety is real and it’s important to find ways of dealing with it. A simple step that should not be overlooked is the importance of good preparation. Consulting your instructor with questions about the material should be a routine part of many students’ test preparation. Your instructor can provide considerably more help before the exam than he can after it’s over.

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