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Test anxiety and uncertainty

The link between test anxiety and uncertainty

4 min read
  • Stress management & well-being
  • Study skills & exam prep

In the lead up to high stakes exams, it is inevitable that students will feel worried or anxious. A little bit of stress is a good thing – it can push students to try harder. But for some, this stress is abnormally high, so much so that it becomes debilitating and stops them from performing at their best. But what exactly is test anxiety and how can we help students overcome it?

What is test anxiety?

Test anxiety is a specific type of anxiety, in which students experience severe distress when thinking about and/or whilst taking an exam. It can occur in students who view this type of situations as threatening and who focus on the fact that their performance is going to be evaluated.

For example, students may perceive exams as threatening because they believe that a poor performance may damage their future prospects or lead to their parents being disappointed.

6 sessions to reduce test anxiety

How can students control their test anxiety?

Recent research sought to investigate the cause of test anxiety and design an intervention to help manage it. The researchers found that one of the main causes of test anxiety is ‘uncertain control’, a construct where a student fails to understand the link between their actions and outcomes. This results in them lacking confidence in their abilities and anticipating future failure. This is what the intervention was designed to target.

The intervention comprised of six weekly sessions, each lasting approximately 40 mins. A trained facilitator delivered all of them.

Session 1

The first session offered students the opportunity to identify signs and triggers of stress anxiety. Giving students the chance to determine what causes their nerves around exams is of paramount importance, as it means that they can better recognise the situations where they will need to activate their coping strategies. This can make them better at dealing with spiralling emotions before they get too bad.

Session 2

The second session was designed to help students identify and rectify any negative self-talk, and then to replace this with positive self-talk. Inhibiting negative self-talk may involve students saying ‘stop’ as soon as any unhelpful thoughts enter their mind, or avoiding using absolutes – the worst words to say to yourself – such as “always”, “should”, “never”…

Session 3

The third session focused on relaxation techniques. Research has shown that taking deep breaths for a few minutes can help reduce test anxiety. This is because slowing their breathing will allow students to decrease their heart rate which moves their body closer to a state of physiological rest. This then makes it easier for them to regain control over their emotions and reassess the situation calmly.

Session 4

Session 4 looked to teach students effective study and test taking skills. Knowing you prepared and revised well can offer great comfort when going into an exam.

In this session, students may be taught how to use retrieval practice, a study strategy which requires them to generate an answer to a question and might be the most effective revision technique there is. Retrieval practice is such an effective strategy because recalling previously learnt knowledge again and again creates stronger memory traces, which increases the likelihood of that information being stored in students’ long-term memory.

When it comes to the actual test taking skills, students may learn to read each exam question twice. As simple as this sounds, misreading the question is one of the most common exam mistakes. Students who have low impulse control should try and read the questions without a pen in their hand, as this removes the urge to rush to write down an answer immediately.

Session 5

The fifth session sought to teach students how to set goals effectively. Students should aim to set themselves goals that are both challenging and realistic. The former encourages them to apply more effort to reach their goals, while the latter decreases the likelihood of them failing to reach their goal and being disappointed. The point here is to provide them motivation and something to aim for without giving them an even higher fear of failure.

Session 6

The final session offered students a chance to reflect. They explored what worked well within what they learnt during the previous sessions (i.e. determine for them which were the best strategies) and identified areas where there was scope for improvement.

We will teach your students to thrive under pressure with key stress management skills. Ideal in the lead up to exams.

What improvements did the intervention cause?

The intervention was found to be successful as it helped reduce students’ uncertain control. The positive outcomes even remained in the weeks following the delivery of the sessions – students came to believe that they were able to achieve the exam outcomes they anticipated, which in turn reduced their anxiety surrounding exams.

Final thoughts

Recent research has demonstrated that an intervention that focuses on reducing uncertain control can be highly successful in reducing test anxiety. The simplicity of this intervention and the fact just six, one-hour sessions are needed for it to have a positive impact is good news for teachers, as it means it can be easily implemented without taking too much time away from regular teaching.

If your students struggle with test anxiety, you can use these strategies easily by following the outline in this blog. You can even print out the poster for free and easily refer to it within the classroom.