Test Anxiety and how to help our learners tackle it!

Although anxiety is considered to be a natural process so that humans are able to function effectively, it can become detrimental when it becomes excessive and uncontrollable leading to distress and interfering with everyday activities such as learning, studying or evaluation situations as in the case of our learners.

Anxiety is the anticipation of a future danger. It triggers cautious behaviour, alertness, preparedness to face future threats, and muscle tension.
Acute stress, though, can almost halve a person’s mental capacity. It is also known that it can significantly reduce the working memory capacity. As anxiety grows the ability to initiate new activities is suspended.
Thus anxiety should be of our greatest concern as educators as it can affect our learners’ academic performance.
Anxiety is part of human nature. It is commonly classified into two types: trait anxiety and state anxiety.


by GEORGE KNORING, EFL Teacher, Teacher Trainer, ELT Academic Consultant, gknoring@gmail.com

Trait anxiety is a dominant personality characteristic in which people experience excessive worry producing circumstances with sometimes adverse reactions. State anxiety, on the other hand, is a more temporary anxious reaction to a specific situation.

Test anxiety is generally regarded as a type of state anxiety, and is also referred to as an evaluation-related stress and fear of the consequences of not performing well. Some researchers support that test anxiety has a trait quality to it as well. Trait test anxiety is described as an evaluation threat, prevailing in all evaluation situations; whereas state test anxiety is described as a temporary feeling, brought about in a specific evaluation situation.

Test anxiety mainly manifests itself in two main ways: cognitive and physiological. The cognitive signs are referred to as ‘worry’ and the physiological ones as ‘emotionality’.
‘Worry’ affects learners’ ability to perform well in a test by blocking their learning as well as their ability to store and retrieve the required information and by having disquieting thoughts unrelated to the task such as fear of failure; or in particular, an overwhelming fear of the consequences of that failure.

‘Emotionality’ manifests itself on a physiological level with perspiration, shortness of breath, high blood pressure, and muscle tension. It has been suggested that poor performance is caused when both cognitive and physiological manifestations of text anxiety are present. However, it is also believed that physiological signs of anxiety may be decreased when learners have high confidence in themselves.

Preserving, however, high academic self-confidence may be a problem for learners and in some cases, it can be hard for almost all of them. Learners who have failed in the past are likely to have lower confidence than others. Learners with learning differences that often have a history of not performing well are likely to have a much lower level of confidence.

There are two main theoretical views that try to answer the questions of ‘how’ and ‘why’ test anxiety arises the interference and deficit models.

Poor test performance may be either attributed to anxiety that is task-irrelevant and interferes with the retrieval process of information and that is the ‘interference view’, or due to poor study and test-taking skills as well as lower abilities that lead to an inability to do well in tests and that is the central premise of the ‘deficit view’. The distinction between these two models does not necessarily make them mutually exclusive. As state test anxiety can affect a learner’s cognitive performance similarly trait test anxiety can impair the acquisition of information. We must also consider that it is acknowledged that the overall impact of test anxiety actually spreads across the whole learning process.

As educators, therefore, we have to offer ways to help our learners deal with test anxiety by suggesting solutions as to how to cope with it throughout the academic year(s), and more specifically when they are to sit a particular (language) test, throughout all of the test stages that are: the anticipatory, confrontational, waiting and results stages.


Coping Strategies

Tests have particular characteristics that separate them from most of other stressful events of a learner’s life and that shape a particular way of coping with them. They are scheduled, based on particular skills and techniques that have already been taught and dealt with in class, and then learners simply have to wait until they get their results.

The coping strategies chosen to tackle text anxiety in each of its various stages may unfortunately not be directly related to whether learners may finally succeed in passing the test but they can surely have a practical and favourable impact. The strategies should be selected according to the anxiety levels learners experience and whichever coping strategy is applied its purpose should primarily be to minimise the impact of anxiety on learners.
During the anticipatory phase, learners focus on their preparation for the test and on handling their anxiety, and as uncertainty tends to be high, negative emotions might arise. Our mission in this initial phase is to facilitate learners adopt and develop appropriate strategies in order to minimize the impact of the pre-test situation by trying to maximize cognitive resources and lessen the impact of anxiety learners may be experiencing.


During-the-course in-class anticipatory coping strategies:

  • Do practical activities to prepare learners for the test(s) by improving both their ability and confidence when using spoken and written English in a wide variety of situations.
  • Adapt and develop test preparation materials to fully engage learners.
  • Familiarise themselves with the various test formats of the test(s).
  • Provide practical feedback to learners on essential exam techniques for each part of the test(s) and ensure they apply it appropriately and effectively.
  • Develop your learners’ autonomous learning inside and outside the classroom.
  • Make sure you differentiate test preparation and testing for mixed ability classes.

As for our learners, we must ensure that they:

  • attend classes regularly.
  • take notes.
  • keep up with their homework.
  • are encouraged to ask for help when they need it (from either us or their peers).
  • decide when and where to study most effectively.
  • review daily and weekly.
  • learn to link new knowledge to prior knowledge of theirs.

Few weeks before the test in-class coping strategies:

  • Help them plan a realistic timetable for themselves.
  • Do some practice papers but at the same time concentrate your teaching on specific areas that your learners need improvement on.
  • Go through their homework with them and indicate the mistakes they had made and make sure they understand where they had gone wrong.
  • Help them identify their weaknesses and help them overcome them.

As for our learners, we must ensure that they:

  • are realistic and prioritise their revision and focus on the basics and not just cram.
  • gather all resources they need to review (corrected practice tests, notes taken, corrected writing tasks, etc.).
  • practice tasks of the tests they feel insecure and have difficulties with.
  • experiment with different memory and learning techniques to decide on which best works for them.
  • utilise active study strategies (teach/study with someone else, make flash cards, create concept maps, etc.)
  • test themselves frequently to determine what they have actually learned so as not to spend too much time on what they already know well.
  • must not study longer than an hour without taking regular brain breaks

Day-of-the-test confrontational coping strategies:

We must explain to learners that they should:

  • get adequate sleep the night before.
  • have a well-balanced breakfast.
  • avoid drinking coffee or caffeinated beverages.
  • not try to learn something new few hours before the test or it may be better for some of our learners not study on the day of the test.
  • not to compare themselves to other learners.
  • try to relax (deep breathing, brisk walk, etc.)
  • arrive at the exam centre early BUT not too early so as to avoid getting anxious.
  • avoid talking to other test takers as anxiety may spread.
  • maintain a positive attitude.
  • give themselves time to calm down if they feel their panic rising.

After-the-test waiting and results phases coping strategies:

We must remind learners:

  • not to think of the answers they had given or chosen and if they had well or not.
  • to forget about the test altogether.
  • to keep things in perspective.
  • to be realistic about what they can achieve.
  • that exam success is not an assessment of themselves as a whole person.
  • to be positive about what makes them who they actually are.
  • that if they fail a test or have done badly, it will not be the end of the world.
  • that facing up to the worst will enable them to look at how they might cope better in the future.
  • that there is always another chance to sit a test.

I would like to encourage you to share your thoughts on this topic and/or to provide examples of coping strategies you use to help your learners tackle text anxiety. Please feel free to e-mail me (gknoring@gmail.com).



Raymond Trevor Bradley, Ph.D., et al, (2007) Reducing Test Anxiety and Improving Test Performance in America’s schools. Institute of HeartMath. Boulder Creek, California
Ron Fry (2012) How to Study, Seventh Edition, Course Technology, a part of Cengage Learning. Boston, USA
David A. Clark & Aaron T. Beck, (2010) Cognitive Therapy of Anxiety Disorders. New York, USA


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