Test anxiety

Sorry for the infrequent postings; this day job thing is eating up all my time! For this post I just have a simple question for you: Does “test anxiety” exist?

By putting the term in quotes, I am referring to test anxiety as a pathological condition that a person can have or not have, as opposed to the perfectly normal anxiety that everybody feels when they do something high-stakes, like taking a test. The reason I am asking this question is that I overheard a student in the hallway today saying something to the effect of, “I went to the doctor/psychologist and he told me I have test anxiety.” That struck me as a strange thing to say. Everybody gets nervous before performances, and so if everybody “has” it, does anybody really “have” it? And does having it phrased as a diagnosis of a condition, given by a medical professional or counselor mean that it’s really a kind of medical condition?

When I was in school, I was anxious before every test I ever took, but to me that just meant that I needed to prepare thoroughly. If test anxiety is a diagnosis of a condition, then it’s not a preparation issue but some kind of thing that is happening to me and there’s nothing I can do short of taking medicines and getting all kinds of special dispensations from teachers. That seems like a really big difference from the student’s standpoint.

By the way, you can very well substitute “math anxiety” for “test anxiety” and ask the same questions. So, comment away.



Filed under Education, Teaching

7 responses to “Test anxiety

  1. Chakolate

    A classmate of mine was so nervous about the test she was about to take that she started sneezing and couldn’t stop. She (gamely, I thought) sat for the test anyway, and as soon as she realized she could do very well on the test, the sneezing stopped.

    Mind you, this was a first-rate student who was well-prepared for the test. The moment her anxiety was allayed, she stopped sneezing.

    I also had a student whose hands shook while tears rolled down her cheeks. She wasn’t asking to be excused from the test, she was just sitting waiting to take it. She could barely hold the pencil, but as soon as the test started she visibly calmed. She ended up with a B + on the test.

    So while I don’t in general place much faith in students’ claims of too much anxiety, I do think there is such a thing as Test Anxiety, and it seems to be out of all proportion to the importance of the test or how well-prepared the student is.

  2. HSMT

    I tend not to put much faith in disorders whose symptoms are so ubiquitous that everyone can appear to have them. I agree with you for the most part – except that this year I have a student who participates well in class, she asks questions and works problems, and even gets them right & catches my careless errors on the board. However, on tests, she is like a deer caught in the headlights. She completely melts down – she is visibly shaken. I’ve never seen anything like it. So I don’t know for sure about test anxiety, but I think this kid has a very real problem that most students don’t have.

  3. Jami

    It exists, but it is way over-diagnosed. Just like every other “disorder” in our country. Test anxiety is normal, but our society is too wrapped up in finding a cure all for everything. Instead of learning how to deal with anxiety, we just want a doctor to tell us that our “problem” has a name so then we can just say, “oh, I have…. fill in the blank” and then we have an excuse for why we act the way we do and we dont have to deal with it, or try to change it.

    I dont think that there is any disorder called “test anxiety” in the DSM IV, which is the bible of diagnosing psychological disorders. I would say that the actual cases of test anxiety are usually paired with some sort of learning disability, or are a symptom of the learning disability (which again is probably overdiagnosed). Granted, there are always people who are just good test takers and bad test takers, but I really think it has more to do with understanding how to deal with stress. Maybe if I go to the doctor and have him diagnose me with chronic laziness then I wont have to come to work any more. Think that would work? 🙂

  4. @Jami: Just have the doc call it “persistent energy deficit disorder” (PEDD) and that ought to do it.

    All: I did some ‘net reading on test anxiety after posting, and there’s an interesting linguistic difference in what i read versus what I heard. I heard the student say “I *have* test anxiety” and the web sites say people *get* test anxiety. The difference is in thinking of test anxiety as something you HAVE (connoting something persistent, as in “I have cancer”) versus something you GET (connoting something transitory, as in “I have a headache”). Is there anything to make of this?

  5. Jay

    I don’t know about test anxiety, but I am confident that people have different test taking ability. I have had several classes with my sister, we studied together a lot. She almost always knew the material better than I did, yet I always did better on the tests. I don’t know if it was test anxiety or not, but there is no doubt that either I over-performed on tests, or she underperformed. I’m convinced that for some reason, she had a thing about tests that made her miss things that she knew cold 1/2 hour before the test, and still knew cold a year later.

  6. It’s a question about the validity of your tests. What are you trying to measure? You want to know, have your students understood the material. Would you get different results if you interviewed every student to get a picture of what they have learned? If so why is that?

    Test anxiety is a real thing. And you want to make tests that are valid, and thus not measuring how well students manage under stress, but tests that measure how well they have understood whatever you’re trying to teach to them.

    Funny questions alleviate the test anxiety, and thus increase the validity of the test. I think it would help teachers and professors if they read more about test administration and construction. And students too. If they can improve their test taking ability by simple pharmacological ways or by relaxation they should. does drinking coffee help? does smoking a cigarette help? should you do vigorous physical exercise before test or relax?

  7. Only gay gay men and carpetmunchers get this.