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Assessment: Reducing test anxiety

Introduction

Being tested provokes anxiety, which can have several negative consequences in the classroom. First, Test anxiety can interfere with a student’s ability to demonstrate their knowledge on examinations. There is general consensus that test anxiety is negatively associated with academic performance, possibly through mechanisms such as the disruption of working memory. Second, there is some evidence that test anxiety is associated with academic dishonesty. Thus, educators can enhance student learning (or at least the ability to express learning) and reduce the incidence of academic dishonesty by using strategies to reduce student test anxiety.

This guide provides strategies and recommendations to help you reduce test anxiety in your classroom.

Test preparation

Reduce anxiety by helping to structure students’ preparation.

  • Provide students with test-taking strategies specific to the type of questions on your exams. Examples include this handy guide from Columbia International University.
  • Provide students with practice quizzes/tests with questions in the same format as the exam.
  • Allow students to develop a “cheat sheet” (with restrictions) to bring to the test.
  • Remind students to answer questions in their textbook/ancillary materials.
  • Advise students to form study groups to test each other.
  • Encourage students to print your course outline, review the learning outcomes in detail with them, and teach them how to use the learning outcomes to help guide their studies.
  • Encourage students to test themselves after each lecture.

Course structure

Build anxiety-reduction strategies into your course.

  • In your course outline, provide specific details about your exams: type and number of questions, length of time allotted for the exam, etc.
  • A week or two before each exam, show students where to find the exam details in D2L/your printed course outline.
  • Consider providing in-class time for exam preparation. This could take the form of a unit content summary, exam sample question review, class Q&A, group work, or a combination.
  • Consider exam weighting. For example, you can help mitigate stress by administering lower-weight exams towards the end of the course, when students are fatigued and under pressure from other courses.
  • Administer more lower-weight assessments (e.g., short quizzes) rather than a few heavily weighted exams.

Online test anxiety

Some students experience higher test anxiety online than with in-class assessments, often resulting from technology challenges. Take action to reduce online test anxiety and improve the equitability of online assessments. 

  • Find out about the devices your learners are using, their comfort and facility with technology and online learning tools, and individual obstacles to learning remotely (e.g., shared device at home, poor internet connection).
  • Inform learners about technology supports that are available at your institution. 
  • Keep in mind that online test security measures are not foolproof and may increase test anxiety.
  • Consider alternatives to high-stakes, time-pressured online exams as measures of learning. These can include the following: portfolios, video recordings and presentations, essays and other written work, and take-home exams. 
  • If online exams are necessary, make them manageable for your learners:  
    • Expand and be flexible with time limits to accommodate varying digital abilities and potential technical problems.  
    • Avoid using an assessment tool for the first time on a heavily weighted test: familiarize learners with the tool via multiple unscored or low-stakes quizzes. 
    • Make sure that test formats are simple and accessible, and that instructions are clear. Keep in mind that if questions arise mid-test, online learners will not have easy access to instructors. 

Anxiety management strategies

Discuss these strategies early in the term and reinforce them again before each exam.

  • Discuss test anxiety with students, and provide resources that offer specific strategies to cope with it. See links below.
  • Before each exam, reassure students that a certain amount of test anxiety is normal.
  • Refer students to campus counselling if they exhibit extreme signs of test anxiety.

Communication

Be flexible and transparent in your communication. Find opportunities to connect with students who may not speak up.

  • Add additional office hours, if possible, for the weeks prior to an exam.
  • Reach out to students the week prior to the exam (e.g., via your course site) to let them know you will be available to answer questions.
  • Provide in-class time for students to ask questions about the exam.
  • Let students know prior to the exam how you will handle any exam errors or ambiguous questions.

Exam design

Consider rethinking your exam structure and content with an eye to reducing anxiety.

  • Unless you’re specifically testing students’ ability to answer questions under pressure, provide students with plenty of time to take the exam.
  • Consider starting the exam with a few easy questions. This helps students to gain confidence before moving on to more challenging questions.
  • Ensure questions and question response options are clear, concise, and unambiguous. If in doubt, have a colleague review and provide feedback on any questions that could be tricky to understand.

Other helpful tips

Arrive early and be well prepared to administer the exam. Knowing that the instructor is well prepared and organized will help keep students calm.

Immediately before the exam, show a funny short video clip, do a 2-minute breathing exercise, or use some other technique to help students relax and take their minds off their anxiety. (Tell students in advance that you will be doing this.)