Test anxiety: a special case?

Anxiety can, therefore, impair cognitive function, that is, our ability to think, to remember and to pay attention, such as in the scenario at the beginning of this chapter. But it can also impact executive functions such as the ability to plan. The anxiety we feel when faced with taking a test is, not surprisingly, known as test anxiety. It's a state-specific type of anxiety but people with trait anxiety are also much more likely to suffer with state anxiety (Hembree, 1988). If you score high on the neuroticism scale, then you are also more likely to experience state-specific test anxiety as a result. Trait anxiety, therefore, becomes a useful predictor of test anxiety, allowing us to identify those at risk earlier.

This obviously means that my original hypothesis was (probably) wrong, and that it's not that anxious people are less intelligent but, rather, their anxiety might negatively impact their performance on IQ tests. We can then extrapolate these finding and suggest that anxiety can negatively impact performance in all formal testing situations. Alternatively, those who are less anxious or have developed strategies that enable them to deal with their anxiety are both more academically successful and are viewed as more intelligent. The most important suggestion here is that buoyant students use strategies to counter the negative impact of anxiety.

Moshe Zeidner, professor of educational psychology and human development at the University Haifa, Israel, describes test anxiety as a combination of physiological over-arousal, tension and somatic symptoms, along with worry, dread, fear of failure and catastrophising that occurs before or during test situations (Zeidner, 1998). Catastrophising is what is known as a cognitive distortion, an overtly pessimistic view seen in sufferers of depression. All possible outcomes become negative, so a student might see the only possible result of an exam as failure or at least disappointment and this might have little to do with past experience. Indeed, past experiences might have been positive, yet these favourable outcomes have been attributed to luck or a fluke. Past failures, on the other hand, are viewed as stable (I always fail) and global (I will continue to fail in all circumstances). These are known as attributional styles and are discussed in Chapter 10.

Test anxiety is real and specific, with research consistently concluding that highly test anxious students score around 12 percentile points below their low anxiety peers. This means that test anxiety will invariably lead to lower academic achievement (Putwain, Daly, Chamberlain & Sadreddini, 2015).

Individual differences in test anxiety

Anxiety levels differ between individuals and I've already discussed the role played by personality and the heritability of personality traits in Chapter 4. This is true for test anxiety, both between and within groups. Test anxious students tend to score high on levels of neuroticism, suggesting that state and trait anxiety are related. There is also some evidence pointing to other factors such as parenting style and age.

Psychologist David Putwain and his colleagues in the UK found an association between parental pressure and higher levels of worry, test irrelevant thoughts and stronger bodily symptoms (Putwain & Daniels, 2010). Studies do find that those countries with systems that place greater emphasis on academic achievement also have lower levels of child wellbeing and higher levels of adolescent mental health problems (although these results aren't always consistent). This would also suggest that schools might also be inadvertently raising levels of test anxiety and reducing levels of achievement by placing pressure on some students who are ill-equipped to deal with it. However, while some students might react badly to increased parental pressure, others will benefit from it and some might even become anxious due to a lack of parental involvement (Putwain, Woods & Symes, 2010).

Parenting style is, therefore, one way in which anxiety levels differ within groups. Research in Israel, the United States and the United Kingdom has also identified groups that suffer the most with test anxiety. Putwain and his team have found that the most vulnerable groups tend to be females, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and those with an ethnic origin other the white British. Students with English as an additional language score higher on levels of test anxiety but this relationship is low. Results from the UK sample are very similar to those found in US and Israeli samples, suggesting that test anxiety isn't specific to the UK and that the same individual differences persist. Interestingly, Black and Asian groups both appear to score high on levels of test anxiety even though these groups differ significantly in terms of educational outcomes (Putwain, 2007). While certain British-Asian groups (for example, British-Chinese and British-Indian) outperform all other ethnic groups, students from the Black community have been identified as underachieving. The reasons for this are complex and differences aren't fully understood, but it is thought to be related to cultural differences between groups and the societal expectations that some groups are destined to achieve while others are expected to fail (the so-called self-fulfilling prophesy).

Data relating to low socio-economic families is more nuanced and not easily compared with studies from other countries. UK results are consistent with the US and Israeli studies but different ways of measuring socio-economic status could reduce their comparative validity. The Israeli study, for example, relied on social class while in the UK the system is based on labour relations. Generally speaking, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds score higher on test anxiety than their middle-class peers, but why should children from these groups be more anxious? Similarly, middle-class parents have a tendency to be more 'pushy' when it comes to academic success, so one would expect children of wealthier families to be more (not less) anxious. Interestingly, Putwain found only a small (and statistically insignificant) increase in levels of test anxiety in year 11 pupils, suggesting that levels of anxiety don't rise as high-stake exams draw nearer. This would indicate that test anxiety is reasonably stable; if a child is test anxious at 11, they will probably still be test anxious at 16 - this is extremely useful for teachers to know as problems can be identified early and interventions adopted over time.

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