How scared should students be of tests?

Does exam stress help boost students’ performance or cause more harm than good? Psychologist Dave Putwain of Edge Hill University considers the evidence.

The extent to which students find tests and examinations anxiety-provoking events differs widely between individuals. Some students may find them intensely stressful, others not at all, and the majority fall somewhere between these two extremes.

Estimating the number of students who find examinations and tests an intensely anxiety provoking experience is not an exact science, however on the basis of the research conducted in the past six years, I would estimate that approximately 10 per cent of the cohort in an average secondary school will report levels of test anxiety that identify them highly ‘test anxious’ candidates. Some of this 10 per cent will be better at coping with anxiety than others, or be more resilient or buoyant in the face of stress, some less so.

Stress as stimulator?

A consistent finding reported in the research literature is that test anxious students, especially those who are not able to cope with stress well, perform worse on exam-based assessments than non test anxious students of equal ability (as judged on non exam-based assessments). This finding seems contradictory to the widely held notion that a bit of stress can be a good thing, or the widely cited inverted U-shaped relationship between arousal and performance (that performance is best at moderate levels of arousal and worst at low/high levels of arousal).

In order to make sense of the contradictory positions, we need to clarify what exactly test anxiety is. Test anxiety is primarily a worry driven experience; worries about failure, achieving one’s aspirations, being judged negatively by others and so forth. Although this may be accompanied by the physiological experience of anxiety (such as increased heart rate), it is the worry experience which is responsible for the decline in exam performance, by occupying the information-processing resources required to respond to the demands of an exam or test.

Many test anxious students typically report an experience of ‘going blank’ in exams, of not being able to recall material that they have learnt and of experience a return of ‘lost’ memories after the exam. It may well be the case that physiological anxiety (or stress) can be motivating or arousing for students when accompanied by a sense of challenge, not worry.

Scare tactics

Recent research my colleagues and I have conducted has focused on whether scare tactics used by teachers prior to examinations (such as highlighting the consequences of failure – we call these ‘fear appeals’) does motivate students as intended, or inadvertently contributes to an increased worry and anxiety about forthcoming exams.

Research is still at an early stage, however our preliminary findings suggest that such techniques have mixed effects. Fear appeals are associated with increased anxiety and reduced test performance in primary school pupils. In secondary school students, fear appeals seem to have both competing effects by increasing motivation, leading to improved exam performance, and increasing anxiety, leading to a worsened exam performance. We now need to investigate those factors which determine why some students find fear appeals more threatening than others and if some students are more likely to find them motivating while others find them anxiety-provoking.

For the time being, our advice would be that fear appeals should be used with caution. It may be the case that they are a successful tactic with some students, helping to provide the impetus or that ‘bit’ of stress required to motivate. However, for those students who interpret such messages as threatening and go on to develop worry, they could be a highly damaging tactic that could backfire and actually reduce rather than improve performance.

Dr Dave Putwain is a senior lecturer in Psychology at Edge Hill University

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