Saturday, September 30, 2023

Reducing Test Anxiety 101

From The Journal Of Blindingly Obvious Stuff, once again the news that quizzes help with testing and reduce testing anxiety. Here's a chunk from Hechinger's piece:

Several meta-analyses, which summarize the evidence from many studies, have found higher achievement when students take quizzes instead of, say, reviewing notes or rereading a book chapter. “There’s decades and decades of research showing that taking practice tests will actually improve your learning,” said David Shanks, a professor of psychology and deputy dean of the Faculty of Brain Sciences at University College London.

Still, many students get overwhelmed during tests. Shanks and a team of four researchers wanted to find out whether quizzes exacerbate test anxiety. The team collected 24 studies that measured students’ test anxiety and found that, on average, practice tests and quizzes not only improved academic achievement, but also ended up reducing test anxiety. Their meta-analysis was published in Educational Psychology Review in August 2023.

Shanks says quizzes can be a “gentle” way to help students face challenges.

“It’s not like being thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool,” said Shanks. “It’s like being put very gently into the shallow end. And then the next time a little bit deeper, and then a little bit deeper. And so the possibility of becoming properly afraid just never arises.”

Why test anxiety diminishes is unclear. It could be because students are learning to tolerate testing conditions through repeated exposure, as Shanks described. Or it could be because quizzes are helping students master the material and perform better on the final exam. We tend to be less anxious about things we’re good at. Unfortunately, the underlying studies didn’t collect the data that could resolve this academic debate.

All that to say "practice makes perfect." Let me try it another way, because there's no mystery here.

An assessment is a performance, and you prepare for performance with rehearsal.

There are two pieces to getting ready. One is to know your stuff. The other is to have practice presenting the stuff you know in the way that's required. Sometimes teachers focus on the first and ignore the second.

An actor needs to know his lines. A musician needs to know her notes. A dancer needs to know the steps. Part of rehearsal is breaking down those things into pieces and parts so that you can get them stuck inside you. But as performance nears, you need to actually do the thing in ways that more and more resemble the actual performance. This will culminate, usually, in a dress rehearsal--in other words, performing the piece exactly as you will under final circumstances, just without an audience.

Messing with this can be terrifying for performers. Most performers have had the experience of being under-rehearsed. I once played for a director who would break a work down into pieces, and we would rehearse the pieces, but never play through the whole thing, performance style, until the very last minute, if at all. The result was a shaky performance, anxious performers lacking confidence, and the occasional debacle.

It's exactly the same in a classroom. To teach the material without ever practicing it is like having a cast memorize their lines and blocking but never setting foot on stage until opening night. Quizes and tests both reinforce the content and give students valuable practice in doing the content on a test format. And of course the more your quizzes and pre-tests match the final assessment, the more prepared, confident, and capable they will be on that test. 

I'm familiar with the theory that says "If these students really know the content, then they'll be able to perform it in a completely unfamiliar format." Sure. And if the cast of The Music Man really knows their lines and music, they won't be thrown if you put them in inflatable Sumo costumes and ask them to perform the show on a stage made of dead flounders while accompanied by bagpipes. There are some gifted performers who could pull it off, but for most, the unfamiliar format will kick their confidence in the gut. And once confidence goes...

This is why a basic piece of test advice is "Do what you're sure of first." Because once you struggle with an answer that raises doubts and uncertainty, once you start to doubt yourself, then you'll find yourself thinking things like "I'm pretty sure cat starts with a c, but maybe..."

You reduce test anxiety by helping students learn the content and by having them rehearse the kind of performance of that content that they'll be asked to do at test time. It's that simple.

All of this, incidentally, is why all standardized test results can be affected by test prep, which is why the Big Standardized Test has a steady toxic effect on instruction. The performance will require students to read a short, context-free excerpt and answer--RIGHT NOW-- some multiple choice questions. So if we care about BS Test results, it makes sense to rehearse exactly that and not, say, reading entire works of literature and delve into them over time with reflection and discussion. 

I can't believe it takes an academic meta-analysis to tell us all of this, or that an academic finds an explanation unclear. Maybe he didn't play in band or take part in a school play. I'm surprised that anyone needs to spell this stuff out, but apparently we do. 


  1. Exactly, Peter!

    Rebecca deCoca

  2. the big standardized tests - especially the ones that I know in NJ - are not tied to specific learning so that one of the causes of intense anxiety is not knowing what part of the course of study will be included on the test. And, on top of that, when the results are used to "rate" teachers' effectiveness, they tend to focus all their energy on preparing students for the test, which further heightens students' anxiety. . .