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Author: Emily Harbert-Surber, PhD

Tackling Testing Anxiety
Most entry-level science classes are test-centric, meaning that the course grade is based primarily on tests and only minimally on homework, quizzes, or other grades. For students with test anxiety, that can be devastating. Yet testing remains the primary way students are evaluated in courses in science and many other fields. Test anxiety can be reduced by making the exams count less and letting the homework assignments or quizzes count more in the course grade calculation. Others have recommended and used alternative types of testing, such as group presentations or concept maps. I was looking for ways to ease the exam anxiety some students experience, but I was also committed to maintaining the rigor of the course. I decided to try using both group and individual tests to see if and how they eased the students' test anxiety. The entry-level chemistry course in which I implemented this testing method is taken mostly by students wanting to enter the nursing profession. The class is culturally diverse and includes a mix of traditional and nontraditional students. Many in the class did not take chemistry in high school, so this is their first introduction to the field. I find that most of my students are hard workers who really want to understand the material in the course. They recognize its importance. Yet on test day, these same students often do not perform well. My goals were to ease their test anxiety and boost their confidence and that of the rest of the students as well. I administered a group test for the first 15 minutes of the testing period, followed by individual tests for the remainder of the period (60 minutes). Students self-selected their groups, with three or four students per group. The group test counted for 20 percent of the grade and the individual exam for 80 percent. I hoped that allowing students to work together on a set of problems before the main portion of the test would reduce the anxiety of those students who understood the material but needed reassurance. I wanted them to relax and feel confident as they started working on their individual exams. What I have found from using this strategy is that, generally speaking, there is a small majority of students for whom this works. Those students report that they feel slightly more relaxed and also indicate that they remember the material better because they've just had a chance to work on it. The test scores improved marginally, but the testing strategy did reduce the anxiety experienced by some students. The primary drawback to using group testing is that one or two students each semester report not working well with their group. Usually, this happens on the first exam. To address the problem, I encourage students to identify two or three classmates with whom they think they can work well and to do some studying and work together, and if that goes well, then they can select to work with each other on the exam. I also allow students one do-over of their group test if I determine that the situation warrants it. They must agree to drop the score on their original group exam and they take an alternative version of the group test along with others who are doing a make-up exam. They can take the group test by themselves if no one else in the group decides to retake the group exam. No single approach successfully eliminates all test anxiety, but I have found that using group testing along with individual testing does help many of my students, and, at the same time, maintains the necessary rigor of the testing process.