Understanding & Preventing Text Anxiety

by Jay Rasmussen

When students have excessively high levels of anxiety it is very likely that the instructor and student will receive invalid and unreliable information about content area learning. We can mediate this concern by understanding

  • components of test anxiety
  • indicators of test anxiety
  • behavioral manifestations of test anxiety
  • social and beyond-the-classroom consequences of test anxiety
  • testing stakes/increase of anxiety among American children
  •  anxiety among minorities and disabled students
  • anxiety and student environment
  • strategies for preventing test anxiety

Components of Text Anxiety

Test anxiety is comprised of two components – cognitive (worry) and physiological (body’s physical reaction). Physiological anxiety displays symptoms such as increased heart and breathing rate, increased body temperature (sweating), nausea, muscle cramping, dry mouth, and fainting. The cognitive components have a significantly more negative impact. Three types of thoughts often occur:

  1. Comparison with other students (e.g., “I’m not as smart as everyone else.”)
  2. Consequences of a poor performance on the test (e.g., “I’m going to flunk this test and I won’t ever graduate from college.”
  3. Effects of failure on their self-concept and identity (e.g., “I’m so dumb that I’m not worth anything to anyone.”

The physiological components of test anxiety are the result of cognitive aspects. One student “I felt I was ready for the test, but when it started my mind just went blank. Before the test started I felt sick. I just wanted to get out of there. I kept thinking what would happen to myself if I did poorly on this test, I just knew it would be awful because I was going to fail again. I thought I did just fine, but when the grade came back I got a ‘D’, I don’t know what happened. I am always feeling under pressure, my life is too hectic.” (Ross, 1992)

Indicators of Text Anxiety

The ways in which test anxiety exhibits itself may include, but are not limited to, social anxiety, test anxiety, or performance anxiety. One common indicator of test anxiety is a discrepancy between actual performance on an assessment and predicted performance based on classroom observations and performance on practice assessments (Huberty, 2009). Symptoms of test anxiety debilitate students’ ability to function in all areas of life not only during a testing situation, but possibly in the days or weeks prior to a test depending on the scope and importance of the test as well.

In an effort to control and minimize anxiety, students will often withdraw from evaluation situations, causing them to appear unmotivated, lazy, or incompetent when compared to their peers. Children and adolescents rarely seek help for feelings of anxiety, fearing the public attention or scorn that may coincide with treatment. If anxiety is not addressed and treated during childhood, it can continue to manifest itself students’ adult lives, consequently decreasing quality of life and opportunities for career advancement (Larson, ElRamahi, Conn, Estes, & Ghibellini, 2010).

Behavioral Manifestation of Test Anxiety

Research carried out by Plass and Hill (1986) indicates that there are four ways through which anxiety will manifest itself in student behavior:

  1. learned helplessness
  2. slow, off-task test taking
  3. slow, cautious, accurate test taking
  4. fast, inaccurate test taking

Emotional feelings of test anxiety can be further categorized into four distinct groups, each with its own set of consequences. Positive activating emotions, such as pride, can lessen feelings of anxiety and motivate students to try harder on assessments. Positive deactivating emotions, such as contentment, will help keep feelings of anxiety at bay following an assessment. Negative activating emotions, such as shame, may increase motivation to avoid future failures. Negative deactivating emotions, such as boredom or hopelessness, can debilitate students’ motivation to try completely. Students displaying all types of anxiety will experience reduced working memory capabilities, which lead to decreased performance on more complex or abstract tasks that draw on this level of functioning. Negative, anxious feelings tend to trigger the use of simple rehearsal and fact reliance procedures in place of problem-solving skills, often leading to decreased

Social and Beyond-the-Classroom Consequences of Test Anxiety

In addition to the academic consequences of test anxiety, students suffer from emotional and social consequences, such as decreased social functioning and impaired social development. According to Turner, Beide, and Turner (1993), there is a positive correlation between anxiety and each of the following: submissive behavior, failure to accept behavioral responsibility, expressions of masculinity, increased negative self evaluations, poor self-esteem, increased generalized anxiety, and fewer positive relationships with peers. Findings from Pekrun, Goetz, Titz, and Perry (2002) suggest that students who experience negative feelings of anxiety will rely more on external guidance from other peers and adults, rather than self-guidance of emotions and learning. Relying on external control then leads to increased feelings of anger, anxiety, and boredom, whereas depending on self-regulation can lead to increased positive feelings regarding learning and achievement.

Feelings of test-anxiety are often exhibited in ways that are socially unacceptable, such as auto-manipulation (rocking, playing with hair), object manipulation (pencil tapping, nail biting), and distracted or paranoid behaviors (looking around the room) which draws further negative attention from peers (Wren & Benson, 2004). It is clear that the effects of extreme test anxiety exist far beyond the walls of the classroom and the school; anxiety is a chronic and debilitating condition. Due to similar symptoms, there is a coexistence of test anxiety and depression – anxiety often serves as a precursor to depression in that it causes significant emotional problems and damage (Huberty,2009).

Interestingly enough, mild degrees of anxiety usually facilitate learning, but high anxiety levels usually hinder learning. Anxiety, on the whole, however, does not lower a student’s motivation to learn. Unfortunately yet understandably, the less able student has a higher level of test anxiety than does the more capable one. During testing, highly anxious students do better than less anxious ones at rote recall; they perform less well, however, in situations where flexibility of thought is required. Inadequate preparation is often the reason for anxiety displays during testing situations, the inadequate preparation being the result of the student’s uncertainty as to how to successfully prepare.

Testing Stakes/Increase of Anxiety Among American Youth

Typically, as the stakes of test increase, so does the intensity of the feeling of anxiety. Anxiety has been coined an “invisible disability” in that it is difficult to identify and its duration often includes a students’ entire educational career – it is a stable personality trait (Cheek, Bradley, Reynolds, & Coy, 2002). Studies conducted as recently as 2004 have shown that more than 33% of school age children experience some type or degree of test anxiety, this rate being higher than was found in previous studies of American school children. Although there is no known reason for the increase, one theory attributes it to the increase in standardized testing and in testing stakes for teachers, administrators, and schools (Sena, Lowe, & Lee, 2007). A second theory attributes it to the increase in testing at younger ages in schools (McDonald, 2001).

As high-stakes testing becomes more of a norm in education, increased pressure is placed on administrators, teachers, and students to perform well; this increased pressure can have negative effects on adults as well as students (Sena, Lowe, & Lee, 2007). Under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, a minimum of 95% of all American school children in grades 3-8 will be tested annually and students in grades 10-12 will be tested at least once. Following this agenda, students will have taken 23 standardized tests by the time they finish eighth grade, equating to approximately 90 school days’ worth.

Anxiety Among Student Minorities and Students Who Are Disabled

Minority students, as well as those with learning disabilities, have been shown to experience heightened levels of test anxiety. Special attention must also be given to students with disabilities who experience test anxiety. Studies report that students with Learning Disabilities (LD) report more stress, nervousness, frustration, helplessness, concentration difficulties, and doubt than their peers without LD.

The most significant predictor of test anxiety reported by LD students is a greater prevalence of task irrelevant thoughts that interfere with demonstration of knowledge. Increased feelings of worry also lead to an inability to solve complex problems due to concerns about outside performance factors, and these feelings are often compounded by previous failure on academic evaluations caused by their disability. Similarly, students with Emotional Behavioral Disabilities (EBD) report more feelings of worry and nervousness than students without EBD (Sena, Lowe, & Lee, 2007). English Language Learners (ELL) who do not speak English as their native language also experience increased levels of test anxiety (McDonald, 2001). Special provisions should be arranged ahead of time to accommodate for the sensory needs of students receiving special education services, such as frequent breaks, shorter test segments, or dictation of the test (Syncamore & Corey, 1990).

Anxiety and Student Environment

One major factor contributing to test anxiety is the classroom environment and the tone set by teachers regarding testing (Larson, et al., 2010). Research carried out by Zatz and Chassin (1985) found a direct connection between increased feelings of test anxiety in classrooms perceived by students to have high threat evaluation settings, identified by feelings of competition and teacher control.

30 Ways You Can Address Text Anxiety

  1. To the person experiencing it, test-anxiety is real. Take it seriously.
  2. Recognize symptoms (flushed face, sweat, fear in the eyes, unable to focus, or sick feeling in the stomach)
  3. Be supportive and understanding. Students who identify a high frequency of positive academic feedback report higher self-concepts of ability levels; in contrast, students in classrooms where a high rate of criticism is identified hold lower self efficacy beliefs (Burnett, 1999).
  4. Be a friend to a person experiencing test-anxiety.
  5. Read and research the topic; learn as much as you can about it so you can help others.
  6. Find alternative measurement and assessment methods to evaluate a student.
  7. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Be aware of situations in the classroom andprevent the first occurrence.
  8. Remember — test-anxiety can happen to anyone.
  9. Make grading decisions on the basis of multiple assessments.
  10. Let assessment become a familiar experience in your classroom.
  11. Be predictable in your expectations of students.
  12. Avoid timed tests if at all possible.
  13. Don’t spring tests on your students without warning.
  14. Consider providing practice assessment items and/or a study guide.
  15. Discuss the item type(s) found on a test.
  16. After an assessment, give positive and productive feedback to students in a timely manner to decrease their post-assessment anxiety and to show students the purpose of the assessment
  17. Help students with study skills (time management, goal setting, note taking, immediate review,
  18. Help students with test taking skills. These include pacing responses according to number of questions and amount of time given to complete the assessment, giving priority to questions you feel confident about, being aware of absolute qualifiers such as “always” and “never” as indicators of an incorrect response, taking notes in the margin, highlighting important information (Syncamore & Corey, 1990), and starting with the easiest questions to best use energy towards achievable tasks.
  19.  Have a good balance between standards-based or testing-based lessons/activities and authentic or project-based learning experiences.
  20. When creating an assessment, teachers should make sure that each assessment is comprised of a mix of easy and hard test items.
  21. Teachers should continually use a variety of assessment practices (such as observations, writing tasks, performance tasks, short quizzes, completion tasks, and multiple choice tasks) throughout the duration of a unit rather than only utilizing summative assessment at the end of a unit that has more weight toward the final grade.
  22. After an assessment, teachers should give students positive and productive feedback in a timely manner to decrease their post-assessment anxiety and to show students that the purpose of the assessment was to inform their learning.
  23. Students put forth more effort when they feel involved with the results of an assessment.
  24. Laughter decreases the hormone that causes stress in the body. Humor can be effective only if the instruction included the use of humor, the test has either no time limit or a very generous one, the humor is positive and constructive, the humor is appropriate for the test content and the test developer feels comfortable using humor.
  25. Relaxation exercises before a test can be helpful. Two well-documented techniques to reduce test anxiety and increase ability to focus are deep breathing and muscle relaxation; these two techniques have also been found to control physiological hyper-arousal including heart rate, respiration, and body
  26. Helping a student with negative self talk (cognitive restructuring) or other off task behavior can be helpful. A school councilor may be of assistance in this process.
  27. Positive self-talk is a well-documented technique that combats feelings of test anxiety. Self- talk is a metacognitive strategy aimed at increasing students’ ability to regulate their own thoughts and behaviors regarding academic assessment and achievement (Manning, 1990). Self-talk can be divided into two categories: positive and negative. Positive self-talk includes statements of optimism, encouragement, praise, or hope aimed at increasing self-esteem and self-perception, such as “Just stay calm,” “Everything will work out okay,” and “I can do well on this task.” Positive statements from important adults such as parents, teachers, and administrators are associated with increased positive self-talk in students, resulting in higher self-learner esteem in students (Burnett, 1999).
  28. The most effective treatment of test anxiety is one which combines study skills, relaxation techniques, and cognitive restructuring.
  29. The most effective strategies for preventing anxiety are multimodal in nature- i.e. they address the cognitive and physiological factors.
  30. Watch out for ways that anxiety can manifest in student behavior: learned helplessness; slow, off-task test taking; slow, cautious, accurate test taking; and fast, inaccurate test taking.



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Jay Rasmussen
Jay is a Professor of Education with areas of expertise including active engagement of learners, curriculum design, classroom-based assessment, content area reading, flipping instruction, online learning, making thinking visible with Harvard Thinking Routines, culturally responsive instruction and Learner Perspective on Instruction.

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