An all-too-familiar scene: I would walk into geometry class feeling confident and at ease. As soon as the test was handed out, however, the dreaded tugging in my stomach began. It will be fine, I thought. I had studied, done all of my homework and paid attention in class – what was I worried about? Breathe in, breathe out. After finishing the test, I would leave with my mind full of doubt and a feeling of nausea creeping into my system.
After reflecting on the feeling of anxiousness I experienced during every math test, I decided to try to do something about it. I did some online research to find out what exactly was happening and how I could better manage my anxiety. As I was researching, the answer became clear: I’ve been experiencing test anxiety. I had heard about it a few times but never really thought much of it. Now that it was affecting me directly, I knew I had to educate myself about test anxiety and how to effectively manage it. Soon after, I went from getting 70%–80% to 90%–100% on my tests. I continued to wonder, if addressing my test anxiety helped me, how many other students could it help?
The British Journal of Psychology defines test anxiety as a physiological condition in which people experience stress, anxiety and discomfort during and/or before taking a test.((Bernice Andrews and John M. Wilding, “The Relation of Depression and Anxiety to Life-stress and Achievement in Students,” British Journal of Psychology 95:4 (November 2004), DOI:10.1348/0007126042369802.)) Common symptoms include nausea, headaches, sweaty palms and “butterflies” in the stomach. Due to the resulting high stress levels, a student’s immune system can also become more susceptible to common colds and other illnesses or infections. In severe cases, it can even lead to panic attacks.
Statistics show that about 12% of Canadians and 30% of Americans are affected by test anxiety, but it is important to note that these are just the recorded cases; not everyone experiencing test anxiety recognizes it for what it is.
Statistics show that about 12% of Canadians and 30% of Americans are affected by test anxiety,((Public Health Agency of Canada, “Anxiety Disorders,” A Report on Mental Illnesses in Canada (October 2002), http://bit.ly/2nx3Apf.)) but it is important to note that these are just the recorded cases; not everyone experiencing test anxiety recognizes it for what it is. Research suggests that test anxiety can decrease student performance by at least 10%,((Gregory J. Cizek and Samantha S. Burg, Addressing Test Anxiety in a High-Stakes Environment: Strategies for Classrooms and Schools (Chapel Hill: NC Corwin Press, 2006).)) which can mean the difference between getting a B and an A.
I decided to talk to my school counsellor about test anxiety and how I could raise awareness of the issue at my school. After our discussion, I decided to explore how common this condition is among my peers. One method I found through my research was the Nist and Diehl survey, which uses a questionnaire to determine whether a person has test anxiety. It consists of 10 questions that ask, on a Likert scale of 1 to 5 (1 being never and 5 being always), how often the student experiences symptoms. The numbers from each answer are then added together, and a score of 35 or higher indicates a possible case of text anxiety. Among the 100 peers I surveyed, 62% showed symptoms of test anxiety. These findings cut across all socio-economic groups, cultures and genders. This led me to wonder what exactly the root causes of test anxiety are.
Anyone who has ever spoken with high school students knows how busy their schedules are. The increase in standardized tests only adds to student workloads, and research suggests that the growing number of standardized tests over the years has increased student stress levels, which can be detrimental to their mental health.((Paul Heiser et al., Anxious for Success: High Anxiety in New York’s Schools (November 2015), http://bit.ly/2nebCz5.)) According to a study performed by the Council of Great City Schools, “The average student in America’s big-city public schools takes some 112 mandatory standardized tests between pre-kindergarten and the end of 12th grade – an average of about eight a year.” This accounts for 20 to 25 hours every school year.((Ray Hart et al., Student Testing in America’s Great City Schools: An Inventory and Preliminary Analysis (October 2015), http://bit.ly/1S4LyQZ.)) While less frequent in Canada (where students write between three and five standardized tests from Grades 3 to 12),((Arlo Kempf, The Pedagogy of Standardized Testing: The Radical Impacts of Educational Standardization in the US and Canada (Springer, 2016).)) standardized tests are a great source of stress and anxiety for students, and have remained a divisive practice.((Valerie Campbell, “What Is the Value of Standardized Testing?” The Facts on Education (Canadian Education Association and University of Prince Edward Island), February 2014, http://bit.ly/2nexquh.))
In addition to standardized tests, students also have unit tests for each chapter of each subject they learn. Although students cannot control the number of tests they have to take, they can develop effective study habits and test-taking skills to reduce their anxiety. By creating a study plan and following it, students can eliminate the “time crunch” pressure, which can lead or contribute to anxiety.
The mental health and well-being of students can benefit from evidence-based supports and practices. Research has found that techniques such as breathing exercises and yoga can help people manage test anxiety.((Azadeh Nemati, “The Effect of Pranayama on Test Anxiety and Test Performance,” International Journal of Yoga 6:1 (January–June 2013), http://bit.ly/2mM4auX)) Strong family support can also provide reassurance to anxious students. It’s a team effort – teachers, peers, counsellors, friends and family can all make unique and valuable contributions by providing positive reinforcement and teaching the skills necessary to manage anxiety.
The feeling of being overwhelmed is something we all have to deal with at some point in our lives. It may not be easy to manage anxiety, but in the end, the results can have a positive impact on our lives. Test anxiety is a common, yet manageable condition. Test anxiety can decrease student performance, but by being self-aware, accessing supports and applying proven techniques, students can reach their full potential.
Shweta Govilkar is in her junior year of high school and hopes to study psychology in university.
Published on May 2, 2017