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Test Anxiety and How it Affects High School Students

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It’s exam day. After months of tedious preparation and instruction, teachers have prepared an evaluation of a student’s abilities and comprehension of a subject in order to determine whether or not they are understanding what’s being taught. If the teachers have done their job correctly and the students have been paying attention in class, the grades should be high; however, this is not always the case.


According to the American Test Anxiety Association, at least 18 percent of students have some form of test anxiety, making it one of the most prominent forms of scholastic impairment today. With the stress of getting into college, the number of high school students with test anxiety has increased rapidly. With the constant competition for good grades, students with test anxiety often perform at least a half a letter grade lower than their peers. A study conducted by Beth Ann Fulton on the correlation between pulse rate and performance on standardized tests stated that the higher a student’s pulse rate was, the lower his test score.


Getting nervous about tests is common, but test anxiety is more severe and often causes students to freeze up. This reduces their ability to perform accurately, use deductive reasoning, or avoid mistakes. This anxiety can be caused by a great number of things, but the most prevalent causes are a fear of failure, placement in a course above one’s ability, and the association of grades with personal worth.


“When students are anxious, their worries use up some of their working memory, leaving fewer cognitive resources to devote to the test,” said Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist at the University of Chicago.


According to the University of New Mexico, there are two forms of test anxiety: somatic and cognitive. Somatic test anxiety is caused by an emotional response and is seen in the physical aspects of anxiety, such as the feeling of having butterflies in one’s stomach or hand tremors. Cognitive test anxiety is the mental counterpart to somatic anxiety and consists of the thought processes associated with anxiety, such as self-doubt or worry.


“When I take a really stressful test I can stare at the paper for a long time and have no idea what I’m reading,” said an anonymous junior. “It’s like it’s written in a totally different language; I have no idea what the test is about even after studying all night before.”


There are lot of misconceptions about test anxiety that have developed over the years, and the most prevalent is that it cannot be reduced. More often than not, test anxiety goes ignored in the classroom and students with it are told that they don’t study enough or haven’t prepared properly. There are several ways in which test anxiety can be reduced to help students focus better on tests and perform to the best of their ability.


Negative self-talk gradually deteriorates students’ confidence in themselves over time and is usually a direct cause of test anxiety. In order to avoid this, students can work on thinking positively. Instead of thinking, “I am not good at this subject, so why bother trying?” a student can try thinking things such as, “I’m going to try my best, and even if I don’t do well, it isn’t the end of the world.”


Often, negative thinking can be a large part of the problem and sometimes happens without the student realizing it. Some students have a harder time adjusting their thoughts, especially if they’ve had test anxiety for a long time. It might be easier for those students to forcibly “stop” their thoughts instead of changing them, by recognizing when their thoughts spiral into negativity and taking a moment to shut them down. This allows students to stop the cognitive anxiety response before it gets out of control and recollect their thoughts. After this, they can focus on relaxation techniques.


Examples of relaxation techniques are taking deep, controlled breaths and thinking of something calming. These exercises often help lower heart rate and reduce the panic feeling that most students with test anxiety get while testing, which inhibits their ability to focus. This helps a student become more rational and improves focus and control, instead of dwelling on negative thoughts.


It is most important for students to reach out to a school counselor or teacher if they experience test anxiety. It isn’t uncommon for students to avoid seeking help if they have test anxiety because they feel that it isn’t normal or a real problem; however, receiving assistance from an adult can provide the personal help they need to reduce their test anxiety and focus better during exams.


If  students do seek help for managing test anxiety, they can talk to their school counselor or trusted adult. They can also get more information from the American Test Anxieties Association on test anxiety and its effects at

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The student news site of Blacksburg High School
Test Anxiety and How it Affects High School Students