Test Anxiety Research Paper

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In contemporary, achievement-oriented societies, test anxiety is a ubiquitous phenomenon. Test anxiety is educationally important because it may influence learning, achievement, health, and personality development. Among a number of emotions relevant for students’ academic development, test anxiety has been studied most often. Exam-related anxiety had already been discussed by psychoanalytical writers in the 1930s. Large-scale empirical research started at the beginning of the 1950s (Mandler and Sarason 1952), and since then, more than 1,000 studies have been published (Hembree 1988, Zeidner 1998).

1. Concepts And Measures Of Test Anxiety

Test anxiety may be defined as anxiety which subjectively relates to tests and their consequences (the term ‘test’ being used in a broad way and including exams as well). Typically, being afraid of failing a test, and of the consequences of failing, is at the heart of this emotion. Test anxiety can be experienced both before and during the taking of a test. Seen from the perspective of trait-state conceptions of anxiety, such anxiety is a state emotion when it relates to a specified test and is experienced before or during that test. As it is experienced habitually over extended periods of time and for dispositional reasons, test anxiety is a situation-specific type of trait anxiety. Trait test anxiety may be an important part of a student’s personality.

The term ‘achievement anxiety’ has sometimes been used interchangeably with ‘test anxiety.’ Achievement anxiety, however, may also relate to situations normally not defined as being tests (e.g., situations at work or in sport which, like tests, imply the possibility of failure, but do not imply test-taking). Anxiety related to such situations may be similar to test anxiety. An example is competitive anxiety in sport.

At the beginnings of empirical research, test anxiety was defined as being one-dimensional. Early measures such as Mandler and Sarason’s (1952) Test Anxiety Questionnaire assumed unidimensionality. However, the items of these measures already referred to distinct affective, cognitive, and physiological components of test anxiety, and early factor analyses repeatedly showed that these scales were made up of more than one factor. Therefore, Liebert and Morris (1967) proposed to distinguish affective-physiological components (which they called ‘emotionality’) from cognitive components (which they called ‘worry’). Since then, a number of additional distinctions have been introduced, including I. G. Sarason’s (1984) differentiation of affective tension, bodily symptoms, worry, and test-irrelevant thinking. Today, there is common agreement that test anxiety typically comprises (a) affective tension (feeling uneasy, nervous, and tense); (b) physiological activation (including symptoms such as increased heartbeat, sweating, etc.); and (c) cognitive worries relating to threat of failure, to the consequences of failure, to a lack of personal competence, etc. Contemporary measures of test anxiety like I. G. Sarason’s (1984) Reactions-to-Tests Questionnaire and Spielberger’s (1980) Test Anxiety Inventory (TAI) reflect these distinctions by comprising subscales relating to different test anxiety components.

2. Test Anxiety, Learning, And Academic Achievement

2.1 Empirical Evidence

The effects of test anxiety on learning and achievement have been studied in a large number of laboratory experiments and nonexperimental field studies (cf. Hembree 1988, Zeidner 1998). Experimental laboratory research has shown the following:

(a) dispositionally test-anxious subjects often perform less well at complex and difficult cognitive tasks than their less anxious counterparts. They tend to perform equally well or even better at tasks characterized by low levels of complexity and difficulty;

(b) the detrimental effects of dispositional test anxiety are more pronounced when an experiment is announced as being test-like and involving ego threat (e.g., when it is declared as being an intelligence test);

(c) state test anxiety experienced when performing complex and difficult tasks is also negatively related to performance. The relation is stronger for cognitive components of test anxiety (e.g., worries) than for affective-physiological components.

In line with experimental findings, test anxiety and academic achievement tend to correlate negatively in normal student populations. Average correlations reported in two meta-analyses were r = 0.29 (in grade 4 through postsecondary education; Hembree 1988), and, for mathematics achievement, r = 0.23 (Schwarzer et al. 1989). However, the range of correlations across studies also included zero and positive coefficients. Correlations did not differ significantly as a function of gender (Schwarzer et al. 1989). However, they were near zero at the beginning of schooling and then increased over the elementary school years (Hembree 1988).

2.2 Theoretical Explanations

One traditional explanation for this pattern of empirical evidence is that cognitive components of test anxiety consume cognitive resources (attention and working memory capacity): worrying about impending failure prevents one from concentrating on the task. This would explain why performance at complex and difficult tasks needing such resources is reduced, whereas performance at easy tasks may be left unaffected. Attention-deficit models using such assumptions have been part of early theories of test anxiety (e.g., Mandler and Sarason 1952) and continue to be one dominant theoretical paradigm.

More recent alternative explanations refer to effects of anxiety on other mediators of achievement, and to alternative ways of causation. Beyond cognitive resources, anxiety may affect students’ motivation and learning strategies underlying their achievement. For example, anxiety may reduce interest in the subject matter and intrinsic motivation, since anxiety may be incompatible with positive affective engagement implied by intrinsic motivation. On the other hand, anxiety may well produce extrinsic motivation to invest effort in order to avoid impending failures. Simultaneous operation of such opposing mechanisms would imply that the motivational effects of anxiety on overall motivation and resulting effort may be ambivalent. In addition, effects on learning strategies may be complex as well. For example, anxiety may impede the use of creative cognitive and metacognitive strategies such as elaboration and organization of learning material or flexible time management. On the other hand, it may facilitate the use of more rigid strategies such as simple rehearsal (Pekrun 1992a, Pekrun and Hofmann 1999).

Beyond effects of anxiety on achievement, anxiety achievement relations may also be produced by the effects of low achievement and low ability on the development of test anxiety. For example, experiences of failures may induce test anxiety, which would imply that negative anxiety achievement relations may be produced by the effects of achievement on anxiety, instead of the reverse (developmental model; cf. Meece et al. 1989, Pekrun 1992b). In addition, performance deficits in test-anxious students may be caused by reduced ability, implying that test anxiety might be a reflection of low ability instead of being causal in producing performance decrements (skill deficit model; Everson et al. 1989).

These different explanations may be regarded as being complementary instead of mutually exclusive. In many students, test anxiety may be generated by low ability and failures in the first place. Performance deficits in such test-anxious, low-ability students may then simultaneously be caused by low ability and by high test anxiety implying attention problems, motivational problems, and low-quality learning styles. This would imply multiple mechanisms mediating the effects of anxiety on achievement as well as the reciprocal causation of anxiety and achievement over time.

A number of studies have shown that effects of anxiety on achievement may indeed be due to different cognitive and motivational mechanisms (cf. Pekrun and Hofmann 1999, Zeidner 1998). Multiple mechanisms implying ambivalent cognitive and motivational effects may also explain why some studies found zero or positive correlations between test anxiety and achievement instead of negative relations (Hembree 1988, Schwarzer et al. 1989). Finally, the results of a small number of longitudinal field studies corroborate that anxiety and achievement may in fact be linked by reciprocal causation over the school years (Meece et al. 1990, Pekrun 1992b).

3. Development And Antecedents Of Test Anxiety

3.1 Developmental Courses

In many students, the development of achievement related anxiety can be traced back to the preschool years. Psychodynamic assumptions suggest that high parental expectations and negative parental judgments producing feelings of dependency, guilt, aggression, and anxiety may play a major role at this age (S. B. Sarason et al. 1960). Nevertheless, in early elementary school average levels of test anxiety are still relatively low. Mean values increase over the elementary years, which is congruent with emerging experiences of cumulative scholastic failures in many students, and to the related decline of average self-concepts of ability (Hembree 1988). Simultaneously, correlations between anxiety and achievement tend to become stronger during this time period, indicating that factual performance and affective experiences begin to be linked as suggested by developmental models of anxiety achievement relations.

After the elementary years, average levels of test anxiety seem to be fairly stable throughout secondary school and college. Nevertheless, there may still be significant positive or negative developments in individual students, thus indicating developmental plasticity. One important mechanism is individual transitions between schools or classes implying changes of relative achievement positions within reference groups, which in turn affect the level of achievement-related anxiety (cf. Zeidner 1998).

3.2 Individual And Educational Antecedents

Empirical research has identified a number of antecedents which can be made responsible for the development of test anxiety (cf. Pekrun 2000, Zeidner 1998). Important individual antecedents are: (a) expectancies of failure, attributions of failures to low ability, and negative self-concepts of ability; and (b) an exceedingly high subjective sense of the importance of failures. The typical test-anxious student believes that it would be of the utmost personal importance to prevent failure at school, but that they are probably not able to do so, implying threats to self-esteem and future life.

Parent, teacher, and peer behaviors influencing such failure-related beliefs and, thereby, the development of test anxiety are: (a) high achievement expectancies and pressure for achievement; (b) competition within classrooms; (c) feedback of failures (as implied, for example, by low grades); and (d) punishment after failure. Parental and teacher support, on the other hand, might theoretically be assumed to be protective factors, but have repeatedly been shown to be uncorrelated with students’ test anxiety. This paradoxical finding may be due to the ambivalent effects of support, which may imply hidden messages of pressure for achievement in addition to offering help. Finally, at the level of educational institutions and systems, important factors leading to anxiety may be competitive goal structures, social comparison standards of giving feedback, and educational career structures implying negative long-term consequences of early failures.

4. Therapy And Educational Prevention Of Test Anxiety

In numerous studies it has been shown that test anxiety can successfully be alleviated in many students. Testanxiety therapy may aim at: (a) reducing the experience of anxiety directly (e.g., by methods of relaxation); (b) breaking up habitual ties between situational triggers and the experience of anxiety (as in methods of behavioral therapy such as systematic desensitization); (c) changing belief structures such as expectancies, self-concepts, and achievement values underlying test anxiety (cognitive therapy); and (d) building up competences to learn and perform more efficiently in order to attain success (skills training). Studies suggest that treatments combining different approaches may be most efficient (cf. Zeidner 1998).

In contrast to therapy, ways of prevention have been studied less often. However, prevention might be both more humane and financially more effective than letting test anxiety develop in the first place and then trying to alleviate it by individual therapy. Judging from the available developmental evidence, important educational strategies suitable for the prevention of test anxiety may be: (a) reduction of excessive demands for achievement; (b) the use of mastery-oriented, individual, or cooperative standards of grading instead of (or in addition to) competitive standards, thus giving low-ability students the opportunity to experience success; (c) adequate help instead of punishment after failure; and (d) adequate design of educational career structures.

Changing parent and teacher behavior, designing educational systems, and fostering school cultures along such lines may produce complex, multiple effects, some of them perhaps unwanted. Therefore, more long-term field studies exploring ways of preventing negative affect in students, as well as fostering positive emotions, are needed.

5. Directions For Future Research

Future test-anxiety research should explore in more detail the multidirectionality of causal pathways, and the multiplicity of mediators linking anxiety to learning and achievement. Furthermore, individual differences concerning mediators and causal pathways should be explored, thus producing evidence on students’ individual affective life instead of relying on sample statistics as in most test anxiety research to date (Pekrun and Hofmann 1999). In addition, more studies on educational strategies to prevent test anxiety are needed.

Finally, research on students’ academic emotions has thus far focused on test anxiety. As a result, not much is known about students’ negative emotions beyond anxiety (such as anger, boredom, or hopelessness in achievement situations), or about their positive emotions (enjoyment of learning, hope for success, etc.; cf. Weiner 1985, Pekrun 2000). In many students and academic situations such emotions are probably no less important than anxiety. For example, deactivating negative emotions such as boredom or hopelessness may be even more detrimental to academic achievement than test anxiety has been proven to be, and positive emotions such as enjoyment of learning may be of primary relevance for students’ intrinsic motivation and long-term engagement in learning. Therefore, future investigators should transcend test-anxiety research by analyzing other learning-related and achievement-related emotions as well.


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