Stress and Tests

Taming Test Anxiety

By some estimates, up to 40% of students suffer from test anxiety; around 20% experience anxiety severe enough to compromise their academic performance. A modicum of anxiety spurs focus and motivation; but severe test anxiety is associated with reduced working memory, confused reasoning, increased mistakes, and (no surprise) lower test scores. This means that we should be concerned: not only because we’re humane, but also because our students’ test anxiety can undermine the validity and reliability of our exams. When students are impaired by anxiety, we’re not getting an accurate measure of how much they’ve learned.

We can help a little by steering our students toward resources. ACE offers individual and group tutoring. The FSU Counseling Center shares mindfulness/relaxation techniques; the Student Life Center brings puppies to campus for exam week. Exercise, sleep, and good nutrition are crucial for good performance, and we can remind students to take care of themselves.

It’s even more important, though, that we manage our classes in ways that curb, rather than stoke, test anxiety. Here are a few suggestions:

Provide transparency about what students can expect.

Students who are well prepared—and know it–are less likely to be anxious, so it’s helpful to give them practice questions that closely resemble the questions they’ll encounter on the exam. Ideally they should have opportunities to practice and get feedback on their learning during class time. Many students are not skilled at self-regulating, so it’s important that we help them learn to gauge their level of mastery of the material.

Avoid “fear appeals” to motivate students to study.

Students hear a lot about the high stakes of doing well on exams. We expect these messages to motivate students to study, but they can have the opposite effect, instead increasing anxiety, reducing motivation, and ultimately lowering test performance (Ambrose, 2010; Lang, 2013).

Frame exams as a way to celebrate learning.

A huge component of test anxiety is excessive worry about negative evaluation, so it helps to remind students of how much they’ve learned. Kevin Dougherty, at Baylor University, refers to all types of exams in his classes as “learning checks” or “learning celebrations,” and sets up the classroom environment to feel like a party, rather than an ordeal.

Frame errors as natural and part of learning.

A final exam or project feels like the last word on a course, but we can remind students that it’s just the first step in a lifetime of exploration. We may not be on hand to provide feedback on their future learning, but we’ve given them tools to work with as they leave our classes.

Show your care and confidence.

Your messaging about the exam can be extraordinarily powerful. In a foundational study of stereotype threat (a topic we’ll discuss in one of CAT’s spring reading groups!) women’s scores on a difficult math test improved by almost ten points when the exam was prefaced by the statement that gender had never been shown to affect performance on it. Reassuring students that our instruments are fair, and that we both want and expect them to succeed, can do a great deal to assuage anxiety. Conversely, your own stress will communicate itself to students, so if you’re feeling frantic as you distribute exams, students will be rattled. Calm and confidence are heartening. One colleague includes encouraging messages on her exam sheets: “You’ve got this!” and “You’re halfway done-–stop to stretch and smile.”

If you want to think more about course design strategies that take the stress away from tests, keep students working all semester (rather than cramming for exams), and help them assess their own learning more accurately, we’re happy to help. Pease contact us at

Good luck to you, and your students, as exam week approaches