Test Anxiety 101

  • Posted By: Alika Gillard
  • December 4, 2019
It’s test day. Your exam sits in front of you on the desk as the teacher speaks to a silent room. You have freshly sharpened #2 pencils at the ready, and you've brought a bottle of water and a healthy snack for the breaks. You went to bed early, ate an energy-packed breakfast, and arrived early. You studied, and practiced, and conquered. You are ready. You are prepared. The proctor pauses for a moment, then says the final words, "You may begin." In this moment, what are you feeling? Thinking? Doing? Are you worried about failing or what your parents will think if you do? Are you envisioning triumph and acceptance into your reach school? Are you dreading the questions on the next page? The feelings, thoughts, and behaviors leading up to and during an exam can make a significant difference in the end result. If you have trouble controlling negative thoughts, concentrating, and maintaining calmness on an exam, you are probably experiencing test anxiety.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is defined by the American Psychological Association as "an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure." The expression of anxiety varies significantly from person to person, but the general signs of anxiety include irritability, trouble concentrating, fatigue, and excessive worrying. Anxiety is also somatized into physical responses, including rapid heart rate, excessive sweating, body aches, dizziness, and trouble breathing.

Anxiety, like most things, is healthy (and useful) in moderation. In fact, some responses to anxiety can actually increase performance. However, there is a critical tipping point, where psychophysiological responses to anxiety begin to hinder, rather than enhance, performance on certain tasks. The anxiety threshold is different for everyone, depending on several individual and environmental factors. It is normal for students to feel some anxiety, however, anxiety may require intervention when it interferes with the students’ everyday functioning, including schoolwork and socializing.

What causes anxiety?

At its core, anxiety is a response to a threat and is experienced when there is a perceived threat to personal well-being. When a threat is perceived, it triggers the infamous fight or flight response that is ingrained into the psyche. What may have been a life-saving primal instinct thousands of years ago is now a complex response impulsively integrated into everyday life, including academics.

What is test anxiety?

According to the APA, test anxiety has been defined as “tension and apprehensiveness associated with taking a test, frequently resulting in a decrease in test performance". Test anxiety has been studied for almost 70 years in response to an increasingly evaluative society; as performance evaluations became more common, so did test anxiety. Today, the research community has increased focus on test anxiety in response to the rising prevalence of generalized anxiety. According to the American Test Anxieties Association , test anxiety affects 16-40% of students either before or during the test, with 16 to 20 percent of students reporting high levels of test anxiety. Test anxiety is most common before and during high-stakes tests, including school entrance exams. The two types of test anxiety are trait anxiety (general anxiety toward taking tests and preparing for them) and state anxiety (anxiety during an exam).

How does test anxiety affect students?

Test anxiety can negatively impact students in several ways. As one may expect, test anxiety has a negative impact on test performance due to the cognitive and behavioral impairments caused by anxious thoughts and behaviors. If a student consistently experiences high test anxiety, this can have a negative effect on overall school performance. Researchers have found that the outcomes of test anxiety reach beyond academics, and can negatively affect the well-being of the child. Luckily, the growing body of research around test anxiety has uncovered effective interventions for educators, parents, and students to reduce anxiety before and during the test. These interventions can reduce perceived uncertainty, increase positive thoughts about the test, and help students reach their academic potential.

For more resources regarding test anxiety, visit our Test Anxiety Resources page.

Get started with your test prep today!