Why do we feel anxious before sitting a test?

Sweaty palms, a racing heart, an achy stomach. We’ve all felt it before: test anxiety.

It’s the elephant in the room, sitting on our chest, eyeballing us as our mind goes blank and the questions on the page blur. So why do we get anxious before tests? And why do some of us thrive under the pressure while others fail?

These are just some of the questions University of Wollongong PhD Candidate, Waratah Scholar and primary school teacher Davina Robson is investigating as part of her thesis on test anxiety in primary school students.

Standardised testing is an integral part of Australia’s educational system. It is considered the fairest way to evaluate performance and track student progress. It is used to identify strengths and weaknesses, of both students and teachers, and direct funding where it’s needed most. Objections to standardised testing usually stem from the way the data is interpreted and the stress and anxiety these tests place on students.

These objections are not without foundation. As students move through each stage of their schooling, the testing stakes get higher and the elephant gets heavier. Over her many years as a classroom teacher, Davina has witnessed confident, high-achieving students fall apart in test environments.

She says the weight can be overwhelming, leading to ongoing anxiety and depression, and in some cases suicide.

“I saw this problem starting as early as primary school,” says Davina, who has a first-class honours degree in psychology from UOW. “I thought if we target this earlier through intervention programs, maybe we can lessen the impact down the track in high school and university students.

“Exams are part of our schooling life, why should we not learn how to tackle them psychologically early? To think this problem can lead to anxiety, depression, drop out and even suicide later, makes you want to help children earlier, where the problem starts.”

Before Davina could look at ways to reduce test anxiety, she needed to understand why it happens, what it looks like, and the impact it has on a student’s mental health.

There is no quantitative data on test anxiety in Australian primary school students and Davina hopes to change that with her ground-breaking thesis. She has spent hundreds of hours researching and reviewing statistical data on the impact of test anxiety in primary school students from around the world. She found high test anxiety impacts around six per cent of children, while moderate test anxiety affects around 24 per cent of children.

“From our research into primary school children, there is an association with test anxiety and general anxiety, depression, and social anxiety,” says Davina. “We are not sure if test anxiety leads to these or if having these makes text anxiety worse, we just know there is a relationship.

“Being a perfectionist is correlated with more test anxiety. Having high expectations from yourself and parents increases worry around tests, so too not having confidence in your academic abilities. Interestingly, girls seem to feel more test anxiety. It could be that women, in adulthood, have been known worldwide to have higher rates of anxiety than men, or it could be that girls are more likely to disclose on surveys that they are anxious. But what we do know is that test anxiety lowers your marks, is related to higher anxiety and depression, and can negatively impact on your beliefs about your academic abilities.”

Davina says a little bit of stress or arousal can be helpful before an exam to get us motivated to study.

“In an exam, some arousal or stress can help us focus.  However, too much stress or even not enough, can lead to a poor performance,” she says. “Test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety where a person sees exams as threatening. This can lead to physical symptoms, like nausea or an increased heart rate, and cognitive impacts, like worrying about being evaluated by teachers, parents, and friends. If you are very nervous about the exam, you will not be able to concentrate and remember the things you need to, and this will affect your academic achievement.”

So how can we mitigate test anxiety in primary school students? Successful interventions used around the world to lower test anxiety in younger students include breathing exercises, relaxation, yoga, meditation strategies, colouring activities and cognitive behaviour therapy, a longer-term strategy that looks at ways to change negative thoughts around testing.

“These solutions are simple, easily implemented in schools and cost-effective,” says Davina, who hopes her research will lead to cultural change, with schools helping students feel more comfortable at school in general but specifically in testing environments.

“From the outset, when we do testing, students are used to being in this comfortable little classroom each day. It  is then transformed to a space where the tables are all lined up, there’s no talking allowed and the environment is completely different. For some students that shift to a testing environment can cause them to freeze up, they are unable to concentrate and focus, even though they know the work.

“It’s so good to be able to perform under pressure, if you can do it early in your life it’s going to help you as an adult. If we can teach students how to settle themselves in pressurised environments from an early age, using simple tools and interventions like breathing or cognitive behaviour therapies, then we are setting them up for future success.”

In the coming weeks Davina will visit primary schools across Sydney and the Illawarra to survey Year 5 and 6 students and collect primary data about school wellbeing and belongingness.

“You can’t do any interventions or changes until you hear what the children have to say,” says Davina. “School is not just about marks and exams, especially after COVID. So another thing we are looking at is a COVID-19 measure: how students report on their stress because of the pandemic, then investigating if this is linked to anxiety and depression levels. This is something my colleagues are seeing at school but there has been no data to back this up. This is why it is important to ask the children how they are feeling, to really understand what is happening with their emotional health during these unprecedented times.”

A follow up study will then use physiological measures to better understand if and how students are impacted by test anxiety.

“Using physiological measures is more objective than a survey, it shows how children behave physically when being tested,” says Davina. “We will compare high and low test-anxious children using objective physiological measures (such as brain and sweat gland activity) to quantify and verify the effects that test anxiety can have on performance.”

Data from this research will be reported directly to the NSW Department of Education, as part of Davina’s Waratah Scholarship.

“Hopefully it will create a change in policy so, if needed, we can care for our students, both in their general wellbeing and in reducing test anxiety,” says Davina. “As a teacher you love the kids you work with, and you want to see them being their best and being happy and learning. I know it sounds like a cliché, but these current primary school students are our future, and we need to listen to their voices in research so we can create future interventions to help them.”

Last year Davina presented the results of her review into test anxiety in primary school children at two of the world’s biggest international psychology conferences: the Association for Psychological Science Virtual Convention and the American Psychological Association Virtual Convention. She hopes that the next stage of her research will allow her to design classroom interventions to reduce test anxiety and improve student wellbeing.

“Who knows if I can get funding for this, but you have to have to a purpose and dream big,” says Davina.