Anxious pencil-tapping, nail-biting and cold sweat haunt testing rooms and student nightmares.
“I feel it all over my body,” psychology senior Jennifer Smith said. “My heart pounds, and I get crushing worry that my whole future is going to be ruined.”
Test anxiety does not necessarily lead to bad grades. A study at the University of San Diego showed that students who were anxious about an exam found it easier to memorize a list of facts. This is supported by other studies that show anxiety actually improves some types of memory, such as one published in the American Psychological Association. The study tested working memory during math tests and showed that students had more trouble with complex problem-solving while they were stressed.
In one of the study’s experiments, participants were asked to solve math problems under different conditions. In high-pressure environments, where test-takers were watched by peers or given monetary incentives, participants relied on simpler problem-solving methods that took a long time. Participants without these added pressures used more sophisticated strategies that were quicker and more accurate.
Anxious students also find it more difficult to pay attention and avoid distractions than their calmer peers, according to a study by the Economic and Social Research Council.
Not all students suffer from test anxiety in the same way. Another University of Chicago study showed that the extra pressure of a test improved the performance of students who felt confident about their math skills. Students with a similarly sized working memory who felt less confident in their math skills flopped with the extra stress of the test.
Women and men react differently to test anxiety, according to a study by the American Sociological Association. In certain situations such as exams, women reported more anxiety, and their performance decreased accordingly. But in a non-risky setting, men and women performed equally.
Writing about worries may help students reduce test anxiety. According to another study at the University of Chicago, students who were prone to text anxiety improved their scores by taking 10 minutes before the test to write down all their fears. The researchers believe that the writing exercise freed up brainpower that would otherwise be used worrying about the test.
Learning to reduce test anxiety has benefits beyond the classroom. Many job selection processes require standardized tests. Candidates with less anxiety tend to do better on these exams, according to a study at the University of Toronto. Employers believe these exams reflect how the candidate will perform in high-stress situations.
“I feel that the anxiety affects my ability to concentrate, so it’s a maladaptive behavior,” Smith said.
Tests at UT usually require students to use complex problem-solving skills. If students learn to control their testing anxiety early on, it will improve their performance in school and beyond.