Fear and Trembling in the Testing Room, Test Taking Anxiety

Fear and Trembling in the Testing Room, Test Taking Anxiety

Testing taking anxiety

by Greg Cunningham, JFYNetWorks Blended Learning Specialist

No one likes to be tested.

People have a deep-seated aversion to being challenged about what they know–and what they don’t know.  Perhaps the aversion is rooted in first- grade spelling tests, or timed multiplication quizzes in later grades. Maybe it goes back to hunting practice in the cave. Wherever it originates, the dislike, and even sheer hatred, of being tested is very real.

Many people claim to love a challenge, and some genuinely do.  Marathon runners run to prove to themselves and others that they can survive for 26 miles; others climb mountains, lift weights, and push themselves beyond other limits to be considered exceptional.  There are many varieties of physical challenge, but a mental challenge involving knowledge is not usually fun. It can end in frustration, hurt feelings or low self-esteem.

When this fundamental aversion is compounded by external pressure to perform, things can get a whole lot worse.  We hear it all the time: I knew all the answers on Jeopardy, but standing at the podium, cameras running, lights blazing, it was hard to remember the name of the first president.  Many of us have felt this type of pressure even at trivia nights at the local pub. Innocuous little contests just for fun, but when the pressure is on, we have trouble remembering our own names. This type of anxiety is common.

Now imagine if the anxiety swelled to epic proportions when required to demonstrate acquired knowledge.  I witnessed a college student who suffered from severe test taking anxiety during a final exam that I had planned to be stress-free because students could use their books and notes to compose two essay questions while sitting in the classroom. Lisa (we’ll call her), a very bright and articulate student, began to melt before my eyes during the exam. Lisa was a fantastic student who always participated in class discussions with lively and intelligent commentary and submitted well-composed essays each week.  She was the last person I would have expected to suffer an anxiety attack on an open book final.

It took me a few minutes to realize what was happening. When I did, I beckoned her to the hallway.  “What’s wrong?” I inquired. I thought she might have received some bad news just before entering the classroom.

“I just don’t do well with tests,” she almost sobbed. “I thought I could handle it, but as soon as I started to write, I just couldn’t…”

Tears streaming down her face, her voice trailed off.  I encouraged her to take deep breaths and assured her she did not have to finish the essays that day, but could take the test home and finish when she felt up to it.  Since it was open book, there was no question of cheating, but I would have trusted her even if it were not.

She was so overwrought that she could not completely calm down. I suggested she call a friend to pick her up and take her home, which she did.   Driving would not have been safe in her mental state. A day later, two essays arrived in my email inbox. They were as articulately written as ever, with a sincere thank you for my understanding.

I had heard of students suffering from test anxiety before, and had even had a few students ask to take a test in the college’s  learning center to help them focus and alleviate the anxiety of  the classroom.  But I had never witnessed firsthand just how debilitating test anxiety could be.

The experience reinforced my long-held belief that every student is different, with different needs, and that if teachers, professors, administrators and even politicians took the trouble to understand and meet each student’s needs, we just might be able to re-orient our education system to serve the student first.

Lisa knew the material, she had the ability to write, but her brain was wired differently than the rest of her classmates and she could not access her knowledge and demonstrate mastery of the material under the pressure of a testing room.  The classroom, the other students, perhaps the silence of 25 people working diligently all created too much pressure and blocked her from doing what in a different setting she could do with ease.

The motto of Quincy College — “Focused on teaching and learning, one student at a time”– is a statement all educators should take to heart.  Standards are necessary, but they can be met in different ways with appropriate resources and opportunities. We do not expect a person in a wheelchair to walk up a standard flight of stairs to get to class. Neither should we expect all students to demonstrate their cognitive abilities in the same standard way.

There will be no quiz on what you have just read.  But there will be a test every day in every classroom as teachers work to understand and accommodate the individual needs of their students, one student at a time.


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