Test Anxiety: A Problem for Students, or Educators, or Both?
Many students in my courses are surprised to encounter the encouraging statements I include with test instructions. These are statements such as:
- Take a deep breath, and do your best. You’re gonna do great!
- You belong here. I believe in you. You’ve got this!
- Enjoy this test! Your creativity is welcome!
As an African American woman educator, who grew up in Southern California, and now teaches introductory linguistics at a community college in the region, I find myself guided by my own previous experiences as a student. My own uninspiring encounters with multiple-choice tests have led me to seek alternative ways of engaging students. I see myself in my students and actively believe in their talents, as you do with those you guide and teach. Throughout this article, I share actual questions and comments I have received and solicited from anonymous students during 2021-2022. These student comments illustrate tests as an affective experience in learning, with the potential to support broader, inclusive course design.
Student #1: “Hi Professor Thomas, I have a question for the test. Do we need to study a specific topic? I just wanted to make sure.”
For many of our students, an upcoming test carries a threatening sense of anxiety and doom. These feelings can build upon previous experiences of limited testing success. Students may worry that test items will implicate a range of topics beyond those they have specifically rehearsed. Or they might anticipate not having enough time during the test to adequately demonstrate their learning.
Student #2: “Hello Professor Thomas, these past few weeks I have been suffering from personal problems. I know I can’t continue missing work because it’ll just add on to my stress. I’m emailing to let you know I am a few assignments behind but am going to make them up. I also appreciate the flexibility of your class and late work policy as it’s given me time to take care of my mental health. Thank you.”
Add to this, that in the U.S. and around the world, students are experiencing increased testing and learning anxiety and mental health concerns. As many as 30% of college students in nursing report anxiety with test-taking. Throughout California, 43% of middle and high school students surveyed in 2021 reported a panic or anxiety attack, and feelings of being “stressed.” Community college students are particularly impacted by the pandemic and related social and economic conditions.
Test anxiety is defined by psychometric specialists as a noncognitive, negative emotion state that “can impair performance by preventing students from applying stored knowledge in a test-taking situation, thereby underestimating the student’s knowledge as measured on an exam” (Cho & Serrano, 2020, p. 192).
With this definition in mind, it is possible that the very experience of testing itself hampers our ability as educators to meaningfully assess student knowledge. Arguably, negative student testing experiences also prevent us from gaining accurate feedback as to how well our students are learning. In this way, test anxiety is as much a problem for students as it is for educators.
As major California universities permanently suspend their reliance on standardized admissions testing, this only underscores the flaws in evaluating human potential largely through traditional, multiple-choice assessments. And yet, much popular advice about “overcoming test anxiety” and becoming a successful test-taker frames the issue as entirely the student’s responsibility. College students are often admonished about their study habits, coping skills, and fears of failure. They are also advised to share their study strategies with one another, and take up regimes of self-care (e.g., eating and sleeping well, meditation, exercise). In reality, these individualized strategies can only help so much, if test design itself is a source of difficulty, bias, and enduring inequity.
So, how can we transform classroom testing—away from a punitive and soul-crushing experience, and into a positive opportunity for growth and learning, particularly in online teaching? Is it possible to maintain academic rigor while shifting our assessment approaches?
Pivoting to Test Design that Centers Student Success
Student #3: “Hi Professor Thomas, my learning disabilities primarily affect my working memory, task initiation, and processing speed. The accommodations that help me the most are extended time on exams and extensions on deadlines if I need them…”
Each semester, I receive multiple requests for extended time by students and their advocates in the campus center for students with disabilities. These accommodations, and the laws and policies that guarantee them, acknowledge that timed testing presents particular challenges to students with disabilities. At the same time, there is ample evidence that students without identified or self-reported disabilities also benefit from additional time.
Furthermore, a growing number of research studies illustrate that:
- Contextualized questions that explicitly connect with students’ everyday lives contribute to student success and confidence in testing;
- Collaborative and cooperative learning lower anxiety, and allow numerous low-stakes opportunities for risk-taking and confidence-building.
With this in mind, I have gradually experimented with test design in my own teaching, something which I encourage other educators to try, as well. Over the course of several semesters, as I saw incremental and transformational success in my students—both on-ground and online (as we shifted to meet pandemic conditions)—I became even more motivated to develop an alternative approach. Now, as a result of these changes, I actually have students in my courses disclosing to me that they look forward to our next test!
Student #4: “I actually really enjoyed our first test together! I completely feel like the test formatting allowed me to convey what I learned about the subject matter.”
Student #5: “I feel the testing format supports my learning and helps me discuss class concepts with classmates.”
Part of my paradigm shift on testing was due to my participation in a CVC/@ONE course, which greatly expanded my appreciation of culturally responsive teaching and learning. Among the many resources I learned of, I continually return to the framework presented by acclaimed educator Geneva Gay (2000) in Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice. In her view, transformative pedagogy should cultivate an environment that centers interpersonal interactivity and “legitimiz[es] personal experiences as significant sources of knowledge” (p. 198). Gay also advocates for:
- Cooperative learning, as opposed to competitive and punitive grading schemes;
- Choice and authenticity in learning through opportunities to choose and determine which response pathway for an assignment helps them best demonstrate their knowledge;
- Incorporating a variety of formats, perspectives, and “novelty in teaching”;
- Multiple opportunities for students to critically reflect on their beliefs and actions (p. 196).
More recently, Andratesha Fritzgerald (2020) builds upon these principles in her book, Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning: Building Expressways to Success. Fritzgerald explains antiracist UDL as beginning with the premise “that all students are capable of learning and really want to learn,” and that it is “our instructional design that prevents them from doing so” (p. 48). This approach insists upon “providing multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, and multiple means of action and expression” (p. 49).
Testing as Pedagogy: From Timed Test to Untimed “Video Test Discussions”
Incremental feedback from my students has encouraged me to consider tests, not as opportunities to indicate what they don’t know, but as occasions for exploration and collaborative learning that amplify what they do know. This pedagogical orientation requires us to let go of punitive surveillance models of assessment, and open ourselves up to viewing the test as a holistic experience that we educators can also learn from.
In my on-ground teaching, students complete open-book (use of notes and textbook allowed) tests and quizzes in community—in groups of 2-3 students—and write up their own responses individually.
In the online version of my course, open-ended questions that guide students in applying key concepts to the exploration of data-sets become discussion prompts for individual video/audio replies of up to two minutes each. By creating an untimed test that is available for more than one day, I am building a flexible accommodation into the test design that will benefit all students, independent of whether they have a disability(ies), test anxiety, and/or are experiencing other challenging circumstances.
Before experimenting with this, I had never before encountered video/audio discussions as tests. Therefore, in synthesizing this pedagogy, I am guided by my prior experience as a student, and feedback from my current and past students.
For these reasons, I design all of my tests as weeklong, open-book, asynchronous discussions using the video/audio functions of Flipgrid, an asynchronous video discussion tool provided to educators for free by Microsoft. Flipgrid works on a computer or a phone with the mobile app. I use Canvas to incorporate Flipgrid discussions within the course. To do this, I create discussions on the Flipgrid website, and then add these to my Canvas assignment, using the Canvas setting type of “external tool.” It is important to note that you (or your Canvas administrator) must use the LTI to integrate Flipgrid into Canvas as an external app before setting up an external tool assignment. (Learn more about what the Canvas LTI is and how it works.) This workflow allows for students’ video or audio-only posts to Flipgrid to be viewable to me within the Canvas Speedgrader function, which aids in ease of instructor access, feedback, and grading (though this can also be achieved using the in-situ video/audio discussion functions of an LMS). It also ensures that students’ privacy is protected by eliminating the need for them to create their own Flipgrid accounts.
Settings on Flipgrid can be tailored to further protect privacy: (1) discussions only visible to course members, with (2) students unable to download each other’s videos. This test design is suitable for a range of class sizes, and accommodates students who do not feel comfortable on video, or who prefer visual-gestural modalities, subtitles, automated captioning, and may use signed languages (such as American Sign Language). I also encourage students to bring their creativity, and some have responded by splicing relevant images and music into their exam responses. On the topic of bilingualism, one student even featured a consenting friend from his workplace, who volunteered to translate each of the student’s main insights into Spanish. This bilingual test response showcased the student’s strong engagement with our course content and curiosity to learn beyond the prompt! It also provided a learning opportunity for other students in the class.
Here’s a sample test prompt:
Please post your video comments by Thursday, and reply to at least two of your peers by Saturday. In a brief video or audio-only comment (up to 2 minutes), share:
- Your name
- Have fun connecting with us!
- Something we have studied together this semester that has expanded your appreciation of how language(s) works.
- Mention at least one key term or key concept from Units 1-4 in your post.
- For example: intersectionality, sign language linguistics, prescriptivism, international phonetic alphabet (IPA), and more!
- Provide a definition of your key term or key concept.
- Most important: Explain in detail how it applies to your personal life.
- For example: Consider how the study of articulatory phonetics helps you understand the challenges young children you know (nieces, nephew, sons, daughters, etc.) face when learning to speak.
- Respond to at least 2 of your peers.
Students report enjoying this interactive, untimed format of video test discussions, because it allows them to rehearse, erase, and re-record their responses, as well as learn from and share with other students. In this sense, the ability to receive peer responses provides students with more immediate feedback than a testing format reliant on the instructor as the sole or main respondent. What I gather from student feedback and performance, is that an interactive and open-ended format helps to make the positive, affective experience of the test just as memorable and confidence-building as the content being assessed.
Student #6: “The testing format was an entirely new experience for me. I had never had to give video responses for a test before, however by the end of it, I had enjoyed the experience. I feel like it tested me on understanding what I was talking about.”
Student #7: “My experience with the test format was interesting because usually when it comes to tests I think of multiple-choice questions. But having to talk on video about what I learned and what I found interesting was a new experience because I can explain it in my own words. When my classmates watch my video about this, maybe it could answer their questions if they had any, or I gave them a better understanding of that one topic. So, this gave me a chance to review and understand the material better.”
Student #8: “There is something to be said about contributing to the communal understanding and learning of the class—we are in this together and all perspectives are welcome & encouraged! Framing the test as a group effort also helps it seem less like a foreboding obstacle and more like an opportunity to grow.”
Conclusion: Let’s Enjoy This Testing Experience!
How can we best serve all students through online teaching? I advocate for attention to our assessment strategies. Shifting from timed, individual response formats to untimed, asynchronous discussions within a community configuration, brings an appreciative perspective (as opposed to deficit outlook) to assessment (e.g., Hammond, 2015). This shift results in a supportive environment that lowers text anxiety, builds interactivity, and encourages students to learn from one another. It is a win-win for students and educators, and I encourage you to experiment with this format to optimize its scalable benefits for the student populations you serve!
I also encourage pivoting to adopt emerging technologies, such as video messaging platforms, that students widely understand and enjoy using in their everyday lives. This links back to Geneva Gay’s insight about the utility of bringing novel approaches into teaching. For example, in many ways, the functions of Flipgrid resemble aspects of the ultra-popular social media platform TikTok, and this makes its use fun and intuitive for many students. These interactive features also assist with humanizing online courses.
When the time comes for our next test, I will be encouraging my students to have fun with it, and I hope you will, too!
Want to Learn With Me?
Join me for a free online workshop hosted by CVC/@ONE on April 27, 2022 from 2:00-3:15pm!
Arribathi, A. H., et al. (2021). An analysis of student learning anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic: A study in higher education. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 69(3), 192-205. https://doi.org/10.1080/07377363.2020.1847971
Cho, K. W., & Serrano, D. M. (2020). Noncognitive predictors of academic achievement among nontraditional and traditional ethnically diverse college students. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 68(3), 190-206. https://doi.org/10.1080/07377363.2020.1776557
Fritzgerald, A. (2020). Antiracism and universal design for learning: Building expressways to success. Wakefield, MA: CAST Professional Publishing.
Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.
Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin (SAGE).
Kurbanoğlu, N. İ., & Nefes, F. K. (2015). Effect of context-based questions on secondary school students’ test anxiety and science attitude. Journal of Baltic Science Education, 14(2), 216-226. https://www.proquest.com/openview/dcaf8d623109555b920adfece43fdf5f/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=4477238
Pattanpichet, F. (2011). The effects of using collaborative learning to enhance students English speaking achievement. Journal of College Teaching & Learning (TLC), 8(11), 1-10. https://doi.org/10.19030/tlc.v8i11.6502