Hours of study and preparation seem to go out the window every time Katie Fisher sits down to take an exam.
She’ll start sweating, she’ll get butterflies in her stomach and feel short of breath. Concentrating on the test questions feels impossible. “All I can think about is all the ways doing poorly [on the exam] will ruin my life,” Fisher said.
Although Fisher, who lives in Calgary, Canada, remembers feeling anxious about exams as early as second grade, things really came to a head in ninth grade when she had to take an important standardized exam. “I went in with an A in the class and I got 52 percent on the exam,” she said “I just completely froze.”
If Fisher’s experience sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Her condition, something experts call test anxiety, impacts between 25 and 40 percent of people and has significant impact on performance in testing situations. Research shows that test anxiety actually impacts the body in ways that diminish mental capacity. More interestingly, the cure may be as simple as reading this article.
The brain on tests
Tests are usually given under the assumption that performance depends on ability or preparation, but that’s only part of the story, according to Jeremy Jamieson, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. As it turns out, how people think about tests plays a significant role in performance outcomes.
Leading up to and during exams, people with test anxiety “worry that they don’t have the skills and knowledge to meet the demands of the test,” Jamieson said. They will feel this anxiety no matter how much time they’ve spent studying, how high their grades are or how smart they are, he said.
In anticipation of failure, people with test anxiety go into survival mode, said Jamieson. Fisher displayed many of the classic symptoms: labored breathing, perspiration, butterflies, cold hands and feet. The body is restricting circulation as a consequence to the extremities, and the hands, the feet and even the brain get less blood circulation. While this response may be important for surviving, it's not optimal in a test situation because these physical responses actually hinder our ability to access working memory, which, according to Jamieson, explains why people with test anxiety score lower on exams.
Measuring anxiety’s impact
So just how much does test anxiety impact performance? Research shows that people with test anxiety score about 12 percentile points lower than people of similar ability with little to no test anxiety. That may not sound like a lot but it can be the difference between passing and failing a course, qualifying or not for scholarships, or being admitted to the university of choice, according to Dr. Richard Driscoll, a Denver-based clinical therapist who specializes in treating test anxiety.
To better understand the impact of test anxiety on test scores, consider a 2001 study by Jerrell Cassady, professor of educational psychology at Ball State University. Cassady wanted to know how test anxiety impacts performance on the SAT. His research team asked a group of students to fill out a questionnaire about their levels of test anxiety. Based on the results, the students were placed in one of three groups: high anxiety, average anxiety and low anxiety.
Cassady's team then administered the SAT to the students three times. The average score for low-anxiety students was 1118, for average-anxiety students it was 1088 and for high-anxiety students it was 997 (on the 1600 point scale).
Critics of this study might argue that other factors explain the varying scores. Perhaps high-performing students have low anxiety, while the students who struggle most academically have high anxiety.
A 1995 study by Claude Steele of Stanford University and Joshua Aaronson of the University of Texas Austin casts some doubt on this criticism. Steele and Aaronson found that for some students, something about the testing environment impacts how they perform.
They gave students a 30-minute test made up of the most difficult verbal questions from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Steele and Aaronson told one group of students the test would measure their intellectual ability and the other group of students that the exam was simply a problem-solving challenge. Using the students’ SAT scores as a baseline, Steele and Aaronson predicted how students would perform on their test. They they looked at how they performed on the test.
Students in the problem-solving challenge situation scored about what you’d expect they would score based on their SAT scores, but many students in the IQ test situation scored significantly below their expected ability level. “Clearly this isn’t just about what you know or how much you’ve prepared for the exam,” said Jamieson.
Finding a cure
Katie Fisher didn’t just struggle with test anxiety at school. Getting her driver’s license turned into a huge ordeal. Although she knew the traffic rules backwards and forwards and could drive safely around the neighborhood, parallel park and get on to the freeway when she was with her parents, things always went sideways on test day. Fisher failed the test eight times before finally passing. “I was just so concerned about being evaluated that I couldn’t concentrate on what I was supposed to actually be doing,” she said.
So what can a person do about their test anxiety? Some doctors prescribe drugs known as beta blockers to reduce the physical manifestations of anxiety. The theory is that if people don’t feel anxiety they will be less distracted and perform better. Dr. Richard Discoll, who specializes in treating test anxiety, favors this approach. Jeremy Jamieson, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, however, says it’s a dangerous path to go down. Not only are these drugs potentially addictive, he said, but they can negatively impact performance.
Jamieson has found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, stress can actually work as a performance enhancer. To test this theory, Jamieson recruited people preparing for the GRE exam to come to his lab for a practice test. One group of participants was simply given the test, while another group was asked to read a short essay that explained how physical responses to stress, like increased heart rate, can lead to better outcomes. The essay explained in simple but scientific language how the heart was beating because it is the body’s way of sending more blood to the brain which improves concentration and access to working memory.
Students who read the essay scored better on the practice test than students who did not read the essay. More interestingly, when participants were asked to report their actual GRE results several months later, those who read the essay scored better and said the stress they felt actually aided their performance. Based on results like these, some researchers believe that teaching students how to deal with anxiety may be a more effective approach than trying to avoid it or treat the symptoms with drugs. “Stress can be a good thing,” said Jamieson. “You don’t want to get rid of it, you just have to learn how to think about it.”
Fisher, now 30, still struggles with test anxiety. She'd like to have a career in fitness but to do that she needs to write a personal trainer certification test. "I know I know the material," she said "but I'm just so afraid to write the exam because I can't handle the idea of failing it."
She hopes the solution to her test anxiety is as simple as Jamieson says it is. "I've got to find a way to get the nerve up to take the exam," she said. "My anxiety is holding me back in life."