New findings about test anxiety are providing a more nuanced understanding of how it affects performance on exams. So far, the response to students overly anxious about exams has been encouragement: “calm down” and “get yourself under control.” That’s been the advice offered by teachers and even noted testing organizations such as ACT. But it’s proven difficult to follow. Researchers now claim that it’s an “overly simplified model of how anxiety affects performance” (Brady et al., 2018, p. 395).
Current work on test anxiety is moving away from the idea that it’s a unified emotional experience. Instead, it appears to have two components: an emotional dimension and worry that’s triggered by it. The emotional part includes those feelings we regularly associate with anxiety—faster heart rate, short breaths, butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms. Research now documents that it’s not these physical responses that hurt performance, though; it’s worry about the exam. The anxious feelings cause worry that becomes a distraction. Instead of studying, students fret about what they’re studying, how much time it’s taking to study, whether they’re studying the right stuff, how there’s too much to study, and so on. Worry also reduces working memory by filling the space with these circling thoughts, which have nothing to do with mastering the material.
As an alternative, researchers are now proposing a shift in the meaning of the emotional response that triggers the worry. They have shown that an anxious response in and of itself is not harmful; rather, it’s neutral or may even be beneficial. Folk wisdom has long held that performance is helped by the extra energy that comes from being on edge, anxious, and ready to make things happen. In this particular study, researchers tested what happened they encouraged students to shift the meaning of anxiety: “What would happen if an instructor tried to help students reappraise their anxiety in a regular classroom context, such as just before an important exam?” (p. 396).
Before this study, the work on changing thought patterns about anxiety had been done mostly in labs and with math content. Brady and colleagues were interested in whether the same effects would occur in the classroom and with different content. They also hypothesized that beginning students, less experienced with college exams, might benefit from reappraisal more than upper-division students. An initial descriptive study confirmed this assumption about first-year students. And finally, they wondered whether the effects of shifting the meaning of anxiety would continue beyond one exam.
What’s most interesting about this study is the simple reappraisal strategy the researchers used. The night before the first exam, students enrolled in an introductory psychology course (431 of them, half in the fall, the other half in the spring) received an email from the course coordinator. The control group got a friendly note that offered encouragement and contained reminders about the date, location, and time of the exam and supplies needed for it. “We hope,” it read, “your studying is productive and we look forward to seeing how much you’ve learned tomorrow” (p. 400). The experimental group got the same note but with an extra paragraph that explained the new research on anxiety, pointing out that anxiety per se doesn’t hurt performance so there was need to feel anxious when studying.
The results were pretty astounding. “Benefits of the reappraisal message were immediate, reducing exam worry and bolstering exam performance the next day. They were also durable, improving overall final course grades” (p. 402). Now, the boost was modest: two percentage points on the exams of the students who received the reappraisal message. But that’s still remarkable given the simplicity of the intervention.
This research and other work that I’ve been reading on the role teachers can play in changing student attitudes about group work are compelling reminders that teachers can send students messages that make a difference—in how they think, what they believe, and how they perform. This test anxiety research team writes that “the way an instructor addresses test anxiety, especially the advice they offer about how to respond to test anxiety, can shape how students view anxiety and ultimately perform” (p. 403). It’s easy to underestimate the power of teacher messages; students don’t often tell us that what we’ve said has made a difference, but clearly it can. Sending an encouraging note the night before an exam with some commentary about exam anxiety sounds like a winning idea to me.
Brady, S. T., Hard, B. M., & Gross, J. J. (2018). Reappraising test anxiety increases academic performance of first-year college students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110(3), 395–406. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000219