March 19th, 2009

Does Test Anxiety Hinder Performance?


Most faculty have seen test anxiety firsthand. It’s that hot, sweaty smell that lingers in a classroom after students have finished an exam. It’s that student who comes to the office to discuss an exam and can answer in detail questions missed on the exam. It’s the student who doesn’t follow directions on the exam or the one who selects the correct option but then regularly changes the answer. Test anxiety manifests itself in various ways and to varying degrees.

Keeping these variations in mind, it is still useful to have a general sense of how much test anxiety compromises performance, on the average, across the board. A large study of 4,000 undergraduates attending three different institutions investigated the relationship between test anxiety and academic performance. Frequently test anxiety is measured using an instrument developed in 1980 that has now been used extensively in research. It contains 20 items that ask students to report how often they experience anxiety symptoms before, during, and after an exam. Using norms generated in previous research, these researchers grouped students in three categories, low test anxious, moderately test anxious, and high test anxious. Researchers then look at GPAs for students in each of these groups.

Low anxiety females and males had GPAs of 3.35 and 3.22 respectively as compared with high test anxiety females and males who had GPAs of 3.12 and 2.97 respectively or roughly the difference between a B+ and a B, as grades are typically assigned to numeric GPAs.

In other words, on average test anxiety does not compromise academic performance to a great degree. For some students it does, but not for the majority. For some students a little more anxiety might be a good thing. It might motivate longer periods of study and more careful attention to questions on the exam. So many students make stupid mistakes on exams. Is this because they are anxious or because they aren’t taking their time, being careful, checking, and staying focused? This research tends to support the lack of attention to detail hypothesis rather than the anxiety one.

Reference: Chapell, M. S. and others (2005). Test anxiety and academic performance in undergraduate and graduate students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97 (2), 268-274.

—Maryellen Weimer