Dr. Adnan Farah
Professor of Counseling Psychology
University of Bahrain, Kingdom of Bahrain
President of the Arab Union of Psychological Sciences
Regional Coordinator for the Middle East
And a member of the administrative body of the International Society for Student Affairs and Services
Many students suffer from uncomfortable feelings that recur as exams approach or whenever they are asked to speak and present their projects to their colleagues. There is no doubt that these feelings are part of a problem known to specialists as performance anxiety that appears in the individual whenever he has to do something that results in an assessment of its capabilities and potential. Test anxiety is one of the main problems of performance anxiety suffered by some students, both in schools or institutions of higher education.
Test anxiety is a collection of responses to a test, or to a situation involving assessment procedures, which may be accompanied by intense stress and an emotional state that affects the individual’s ability to focus and negatively affect the outcome of his or her performance.
Although some anxiety is natural, stimulating to the brain and can motivate towards achieving a particular goal, it however may rise to the point that results in the feeling of fatigue, psychological stress, emotional disorientation, increased sensitivity and susceptibility to confusion, and lack of ability to focus, which hinders various mental processes, especially the memory function. Perhaps one of the most striking effects of the test anxiety is what some students describe as sudden mental emptiness and that they suddenly feel that their mind has become completely empty of information as if they had not read anything. It is a state of brain blockage or temporary loss of memory caused by high anxiety.
The difference between anxiety disorder and test anxiety
The mental disorder known as “general anxiety disorder”, which is characterized by excessive and unrealistic anxiety about everyday life is quite different from test anxiety. Those who suffer from the general anxiety disorder feel that the anxiety is beyond their control and that they do not have the means to stop it. They usually expect the worst of things even though there would be no obvious reason for it. This inclined the specialists to consider this kind of anxiety as a personal characteristic that manifests in most aspects of the individual’s life. While test anxiety is viewed to be limited to a particular circumstance or performance of a particular task, such as a test, presentation, or public speaking.
The prevalence of the problem and the incidence rate
As for the prevalence of the problem among students and the rate of occurrence of test anxiety, the researchers estimate that between 25-40% of students in general suffer from test anxiety. The American Association of Test anxiety estimates that about 16-20% of students suffer from severe test anxiety, while approximately 15% of students suffer from mild test anxiety. Many studies have concluded that this percentage is higher among female students.
Symptoms of test anxiety
The main symptoms of test anxiety are –
- Intestinal disorders
- Fear and panic
- Shortness of breath and sweating
Some may even experience panic attacks that manifest as an increase in heartbeat, tremors of the limbs, a feeling of suffocation or shortness of breath, feeling dizzy, imbalanced, numb or feeling cold or hot.
Reasons for test anxiety
There are a number of reasons and factors that underlie test anxiety. Some of these factors are related to the personality of the student, some are related to the family upbringing, and others to the educational system and the school.
- Personality: Personality is one of the most important factors for students. The student may be characterized by being overly concerned, and sensitive towards the assessment of others for the results of his behavior or performance of a particular task. They would be unable to cope with stress, which creates fertile ground for the emergence of test anxiety. Add to this the habits of studying, the tendency to postpone continuously, poor preparation for exams starting to study too soon before the exam, the inability of the individual to organize, expecting failure and excessive fear of the reactions of parents.
- Family education: The family is responsible for the emergence of the examination anxiety through parenting methods based on authoritarianism and punishment, which enhances the emergence of test anxiety in their children because of its association with punishment and undesirable results in the event of failure or obtaining results contrary to their expectations. Add to that the intimidation and threats of parents towards children and looking forward to the results of the exam. Moreover, there is the fact that many families do not take into account the real abilities and potential of their children and the unrealistic high expectations and hopes and they place on the children. This results in a high level of anxiety among children in anticipation of the disappointment that may result from failure to achieve the wishes of parents and their ambitions.
- Wrong teaching methods: methods of teaching based on memorization and neglect of practical methods that help in the consolidation of information in the minds of students, and make it easy to remember during the exam.
- Neglecting the role of the student: neglecting the role of the student in the process of learning and the one-man show style of teaching that ignores the involvement of students actively in discussions.
- Limited evaluation methods: One of the salient factors in the emergence of test anxiety is the limited evaluation methods used by some teachers that are restricted to exams without considering about alternatives. This makes passing the exam a crucial matter and a turning point for students. Add to that the procedures that precede and accompany the tests in many schools, that are usually stimulate fear and panic. Moreover, some teachers emphasize fear of exams and use it as a means of retaliation against students.
Prevention of anxiety
As with other problems, exam anxiety can be addressed with some preventive measures to avoid its appearance or to overcome it in its initial stages. Prevention is often the responsibility of the family and the school.
1. Family role
- Exercising balanced and moderate child-rearing methods that non- authoritarian and make the child feel safe and secure.
- Avoiding threat and intimidation if results are not obtained in line with parents’ expectations.
- The family should have a realistic view of the children’s abilities and potentials and avoid high expectations that burden children beyond their abilities and generate feelings of anxiety and tension.
- Teaching children the optimal habits of daily life organization and moving away from the habits of postponement and procrastination by completing tasks promptly. By facing the pressures of life in a balanced manner that does not involve nervousness and tension, parents can be role models for their children in learning these healthy daily habits, which positively reflect on their children in acquiring habits of study, self-organization, time management, and coping with stress of life.
- Instilling self-confidence and creating a family atmosphere based on openness, positive communication, acceptance and mutual respect between parents and children, which undoubtedly contributes to creating a solid personality capable of adapting away from anxiety and tension.
2. The role of the school
The school also plays an important role in the prevention of exam anxiety in various ways, including:
- Activating the role of the student and making him or her an active player in the learning process in order to contribute to the provision of information beyond the role of the listener.
- Using various individual and group based classroom activities that take into account the learning patterns of students. This will consolidate the study material deeper into the minds of the students, makes it more easily understandable, and reduces the students’ need to preserve and rely only on the skill of memorization.
- Diversifying the methods of evaluating learning outcomes. The exam is not the only way to make sure the students understand the materials of the course. Alternative assessment methods can be applied such as group and individual projects, home tests and scientific exhibitions. Those methods provide students with other opportunities to express an understanding of what they have learned outside the atmosphere of the exams, that include stressful procedures that spur tension and anxiety.
- Giving students an opportunity to learn about the exam form and its components or provide a sample test for students, and explaining the distribution of grades and the standards of correction and other procedures.
- A psychologist, the school counselor, or a social worker can teach students different skills to address exam anxiety and alleviate various symptoms such as teaching exam preparation skills, study skills, time management, and relaxation skills.
There is no doubt that both the home and the school have an active role in accepting the individual differences between students and in shaping their orientation and their view of the exam and what may be followed by the probability of failure in the exam or not to get the estimate expected. Failure should not be an opportunity to threat, intimidate, and ridicule children or students, but rather should be an opportunity to learn from mistakes in a manner that preserves dignity, and a reminder that one should learn from his or her mistakes. Parents should always maintain the value and status of the children, as long as they do their best and employ their different potentials and energies.
Treatment of test anxiety
The first step is to identify the causes and factors that led to the emergence of test anxiety symptoms and its negative manifestations in order to address them in a way that reduces them and their negative effects as much as possible. The remedial procedures and the skills needed by the students to counter the symptoms of the test anxiety vary depending on what caused these symptoms. Students who exhibit symptoms of anxiety in the run-up to the exam must learn the right methods of learning, healthy habits of sleep, eating, fitness, and learn to relax. A student suffering from a high level of anxiety and irritating physical symptoms that may appear during the exam time may need to ask for help from a school specialist to provide the necessary support such as additional time or a break during the exam. Some students may need to help in thought organization and getting rid of negative thoughts that increase their level of anxiety.
Here are some of the procedures that can help students face exams, manage anxiety and minimize its negative effects:
- Get enough sleep.
- Have a healthy and light meal before the exam for at least two hours, and avoid taking the exam on an empty stomach.
- Bring all the necessary tools need for the exam such as pens, calculator and so on.
- Access to the exam at the right time by avoiding early or late arrival.
- Avoid discussing the exam material with colleagues before entering the exam.
- Be sure to read the general instructions for the exam, as well as instructions that are specific for its components.
- Prioritize the time required to complete the exam and calculate the time necessary to answer each part of the exam.
- Start with the easy questions that need a shorter time and then move on to difficult questions later that need longer time.
- Avoid attention to what other students do during the exam.
- Allocate enough time to review the exam paper before delivery.