Test anxiety: What can schools do about it?

Professor David Putwain unpacks the concept of ‘test anxiety’, how to recognise it, and how to best support anxious students.
Professor David Putwain
Professor of Education at Liverpool John Moores University

What is it Test Anxiety?

While many students can experience finding a specific exam a worrisome experience, or experience anxiety around exams for isolated periods, this isn’t the same as exam anxiety or ‘test anxiety’. Test anxiety is the tendency to experience most (or all) exams as threatening and react with high levels of anxiety, with characteristics such as:

Cognitive signs

  • Going blank during an exam
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Remembering answers after an exam has finished
  • Negative thoughts about past performance in exams
  • Negative thoughts about the consequences of failure

Affective signs

  • Feeling excessive tension
  • Feeling excessive panic
  • Feeling excessively overwhelmed
  • Feeling not in control

Physiological signs

  • Fast heartbeat
  • A dry mouth
  • Jelly/wobbly legs
  • Dizzy or faint
  • A tight or churning stomach
  • Sweating

Test anxiety can also show up in disengagement, procrastination in starting revision, or a withdrawal of effort from studies. This isn’t to say that all disengagement and effort withdrawal is due to test anxiety, but it can be a reaction to fear of failure for some. 

Although many people talk about ‘exam stress’ and ‘exam anxiety’ as if they were the same thing, it’s important to understand the differences between them. Exam stress isn’t always a bad thing. Some students thrive under pressure; it is motivating and drives them to perform better than they would have done otherwise. In contrast, other students choke under pressure. These are the students for whom exam pressures can become problematic, leading to test anxiety.

Is it a problem?

Educationally speaking, there’s a robust body of studies conducted over the last 50 years showing that test anxiety is associated with lower exam performance – and that this is largely due to anxiety interfering with working memory function and capacity. 

Working memory has a limited capacity to process information, and anxiety directs attention away from the exam and onto worries, making it harder to concentrate, recall information, and think about how to organise an answer to a question. Many highly test-anxious students describe this experience as ‘going blank’, despite having spent time diligently revising. 

Importantly, students of all levels of ability can experience this, and it’s not unique to high or borderline ability sets. The estimated difference between high and low test-anxious students in GCSE grades for Science, English, and Maths is two grades per subject . 

There has been far less research conducted into links between test anxiety and wellbeing, but the studies that have been conducted point to highly test-anxious students being less satisfied with school. There’s also some overlap between high levels of test anxiety and more serious forms of clinical anxiety such as panic disorder and generalised anxiety disorder. One study found, with 96.6% reliability, that highly test-anxious students met the criteria to be diagnosed with a clinical anxiety disorder . 

Another, somewhat sobering, statistic from a study of adolescent suicide in England over a 16-month period in 2014-15 found that exam anxiety was specifically cited in coroners’ reports in 15% of cases . These findings show that test anxiety isn’t something that should be lightly dismissed as a routine part of education or taking high-stakes exams.

What can schools do about it?

Although the proportion of students recently reporting high levels of test anxiety doesn’t appear to have increased significantly over the past decade, there’s a much greater awareness among school practitioners of students who are unable to cope effectively with the demands of high-stakes exams. 

This is partly a result of greater numbers of students asking for alternative exam arrangements and partly raised consciousness among students and adults of wellbeing and mental health issues. Schools I’ve worked with have tried a variety of approaches to support students, including yoga, mindfulness, resilience training, pet therapy, and quiet time. These can definitely be effective approaches to general stress management, but their effectiveness for managing test anxiety will be limited unless they specifically address the root causes.
Fortunately, there are a number of simple and straightforward steps that schools and education practitioners can take to support test-anxious students.

1. Make exams ‘normal’

Evidence suggests that test anxiety is less likely to develop when exams in formal settings are part of the normal routine of school life. Exams taken under standardised conditions could be incorporated into the school testing regime from Year 7 onwards so that the theatre and ritual of exams becomes normal.

2. Avoid assumptions

Don’t assume that you’ll know which students are highly test anxious. Students who show outward signs of panic and anxiety during exams won’t be the only ones. There will be others who strongly internalise their anxiety and who may not talk about it. You might wish to consider taking a ‘test anxiety temperature check’ alongside existing measures of wellbeing that your school is using, or screening students to identify those who need additional support. 

3. Start the conversation

Talk to your students about stress and anxiety, what they are, how to recognise them, what are their triggers, and specifically that exam pressures are nothing to be scared of. Everyone can learn effective ways of coping with pressure and managing emotions like anxiety. This could be done in a whole-year assembly, wellbeing days (if your school has them), or through PSHE lessons (or their equivalent). Diaphragmatic breathing is an effective approach to reducing immediate feelings of panic and can be used, for instance, at the beginning of an exam. It does, however, require practice and could be easily incorporated into wellbeing days or PSHE lessons.

4. Help students structure revision

A common feature of highly test-anxious students is that they have low confidence in their ability (sometimes this can be subject-specific) or in their ability to perform during exams. If your school doesn’t teach students about specific ways to revise, and how to plan revision, and importantly how to judge whether revision is effective, these would be excellent ways to help anxious students build confidence. Feeling more in control of learning will help to reduce test anxiety. Showing students how to revise in a cycle of self-regulating learning (set goals, revise, test, review goals) can provide the structure some students need to underpin their revision.  

5. Communicate sensitively

Consider what messages students are being told about GCSEs or A-Levels in lessons, assemblies, or through official school communications. Heavy handed messages about the importance of working hard to avoid failure have been shown to motivate some students but are triggers for anxiety in others. The effectiveness of such messages depends on them reaching the right students and so may not be best used with whole classes or year groups. 

6. Think about additional support

Consider whether to provide additional support or intervention for students who are highly test anxious. If this intervention is to be effective, it must specifically target the causes of exam anxiety. Your educational psychology or CAMHS service may be able to help or advise with this. Educational Mental Health Practitioners, being rolled out from 2020 onwards, may also be able to assist with (and maybe even deliver) such interventions, although this role hasn’t been clearly defined yet.

Professor David Putwain
Professor of Education at Liverpool John Moores University

David Putwain is a Professor of Education at Liverpool John Moores University. He is a former teacher who has been researching the psychological factors that influence learning and achievement (including test anxiety) since 2003. He has a particular focus on motivation, emotion, engagement, and the learning environment. David has produced a free resource pack for schools, has developed a 6-session evidence-based intervention for highly test-anxious students, and can screen your students (part of a cohort, a whole-year cohort, or a whole school) via an electronic link with minimal disruption. If you’d be interested if any of these, please contact him directly on d.w.putwain@ljmu.ac.uk.

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