Test anxiety at school: what it is and what to do about it

This week, I came across a new Italian study on a topic close to my heart: test anxiety.

The article is titled “Io e la scuola: percezione di ansia e benessere degli studenti in ambiente scolastico”. The study seeks to validate a new survey to investigate the construct of test anxiety in secondary school students.

I know many of you have students who suffer from test anxiety and that many of you are suffering from test anxiety for the upcoming concorso, so here goes a little information about it.

What is test anxiety?

Test anxiety refers to the set of phenomenological, physiological, and behavioural responses that accompany concern about possible negative consequences or failure on an examination or similar evaluative situation (Zeidner, 1998).

You might be familiar with this as a teacher or even a student: you worry constantly about a particular test, your palms sweat, you lose sleep… the list goes on.

But is test anxiety always there or does it come and go? Fortunately, it can take both forms. It can be understood as a “trait”, i.e. a personality trait that is pretty constant, or it can arise as a result of specific situations, such a stressful examination.

Is test anxiety the same as general anxiety?

Although the two are related, the answer is no: test anxiety is a specific kind of anxiety (a specific “construct”, in research speak).

Indeed, anxiety as related to education comes in many forms, and research has shown that it can be very situation- and skill-specific.

For example, it exists in the form of Foreign Language Learning Anxiety (a unique set of behaviours, thoughts and feelings that arise from the uniqueness of the language learning process) and on an even more granular level as Foreing Language Listening Anxiety.

People who experience this kind of anxiety are concerned about listening in a foreign language. Interestingly, listening anxiety can be exacerbated by test anxiety when students have to take a listening exam, like IELTS, FCE or the INVALSI.

Why does this matter?

Well, test anxiety is important because it is a key factor in student wellbeing.

And indeed, Italian students seem to suffer from it: in the research study above, 60% of students reported suffering from it. This can hinder their wellbeing at school, with potential negative repercussions on (among other things) mental health and school dropout (where Italy already performs worse than most EU countries).

Further, and if you’re studying for the concorso you’ll be familiar with this, test anxiety can become an issue with the reliability (attendibilità) of the assessment itself. In other words, if we use assessment methods that cause high test anxiety, will our marks capture the students’ true level of learning or will they just be a reflection of how anxious they were?

So, what do we do? Should we just get rid of numerical grades?

Some people have suggested doing away with numerical grades altogether as a grade-based school system only fosters competitiveness and exacerbates test anxiety.

Understandably, this has been met with a lot of skepticism from teachers.

I for one think we can take a more nuanced approach, keeping in mind the nees of specific contexts. Numerical grades and summative assessment can have important functions, the main one being that they give students a true sense of what they have achieved, which helps them develop a sense of progress. This of course needs to be accompanied by an understanding of what the grade means and how to improve: a test of which the student does not understand the marking criteria is unlikely to have a positive impact on learning.

To help students tackle their test anxiety, the first thing to remember is that there are many factors involved in student wellbeing. In the Italian study cited above, a sense of protection worked well to mitigate the students’ test anxiety. This signals that working on a welcoming, inclusive classroom environment can be a starting point to help students with their anxiety.

Another avenue to pursue is that of diversifying our assessment methods. Formative assessment, self assessment and peer assessment can become a part of our assessment routines. Lower stakes, better ability to understand and control one’s learning process, more experiences of success: all factors that can contribute to lowering test anxiety.

Over to you now

So, what is your experience with your students’ test anxiety? Should we completely get rid of numerical marks, like some suggest, or is there still a place for formal, summative assessment in our schools?

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