Allaying Students' Anxieties About Tests:

Anxiety can interfere with students' performance on tests. You can reduce students' anxiety and enhance their performance by taking care in how you prepare students for an exam, how you administer and return the test, and how you handle makeup tests. All students, but especially freshmen and sophomores, can benefit from knowing what they will be asked to do on an exam and under what conditions. Students will also feel more relaxed and less intimidated if you provide reassurance and encouragement rather than dire warnings about a test's difficulty. The suggestions below are designed to help you prepare your students to do their best on tests.


Make the first exam relatively easy.Research on motivation indicates that early success in a course increases students' motivation and confidence (Lucas, 1990). In particular, students who do well on the first test generally improve their grades on subsequent tests (Guskey, 1988).


Give more than one examination. The length of the school term, the difficulty level of the course, and the amount of course material all determine the number of exams an instructor gives. Periodic testing during the term has been shown to improve students' performance on the final exam (Lowman, 1984). Giving two or more midterm exams also spreads out the pressure, allows students to concentrate on one chunk of material at a time, and allows students and instructors to monitor progress.


Avoid "pop" quizzes. Unannounced or surprise quizzes may penalize students who are unable to prepare for every single class meeting. (Source: Jacobs and Chase, 1992)


Give students advice on how to study. Help students develop appropriate study strategies to organize and understand information from the assigned readings and class notes. Consult with your student learning center for information. Also see "Helping Students Learn." (Source: Mealey and Host, 1992)


Encourage students to study in groups. According to researchers, students who study in groups recall more information than students working alone and are able to overcome their feelings of academic inadequacy and isolation (Mealey and Host, 1992).


Schedule extra office hours before a test. Some instructors schedule extra office hours for the week or so before an exam to give students a chance to ask questions and go over difficult aspects of the material. They especially encourage study groups to visit during office hours.


Schedule review sessions before major exams. See "The Last Days of Class" for advice on how to structure a review session.


Ask students how you can help them feel less anxious. Students often make requests that faculty can easily accommodate, such as providing information about the test format, offering a review session, or refraining from walking around during the exam. (Source: Mealey and Host, 1992)


Give a diagnostic test early in the term. early diagnostic test alerts students to the prerequisite skills and knowledge they need to succeed in your class. Some faculty give diagnostic tests throughout the term to identify which students are keeping up and which need help and to enable all students to identify the areas they need to work on. These diagnostic tests provide students with quick and frequent feedback and typically do not count heavily in the final grade. (Sources: Ericksen, 1969; Svinicki, 1976)


Attach a pool of final exam questions to the course syllabus and distribute both on the first day of class. A faculty member who uses this technique attaches to the syllabus fifty essay questions, all of which the class discusses during the term. The final exam is composed of five essay questions from the list. Under this system, students need not spend the semester worrying about what will be on the final. If the exam is too long to be attached to the syllabus, bind it to the course reader so that every student has a copy at a small additional cost. (Source: "Exams: Alternative Ideas and Approaches," 1989)


Put old exams on file in the department office or library. Reviewing past exams gives students clues about what to study. Students can analyze old exams for format (length of test, number of points for each type of question), types of questions, and level of difficulty. If your campus is networked, you can enter exams onto a file server and students can retrieve them whenever they want.


Distribute practice exams. Practice tests with answers help students gauge what is expected of them. You can use practice exams as the basis for review sessions or student study groups. If you will be administering a multiple-choice test, you could distribute the stems of multiple-choice questions but not the response choices; for example, "Which of the following statements best characterizes Melanie Kleins view of the first year of life?" (Source: Erickson and Strommer, 1991)


Before an exam, explain the format to students. Let students know the number of questions, whether the test will be multiple-choice or essay and open or closed book, and whether they can bring in notes.


Give students advice on how to prepare for an exam. For example, remind them to allocate their study time in proportion to the relative importance of various topics. See "Multiple-Choice and Matching Tests" and "Short-Answer and Essay Tests" for suggestions to give students for those types of exams. To lessen students' tension before a test, give the following recommendations:


Avoid cramming by spreading studying over several weeks.

  • Eat sensibly the night before a test and get a good night's sleep.
  • Arrive early for the test.
  • Take deep relaxing breaths as the test starts.

[From the hard copy book Tools for Teaching by Barbara Gross Davis; Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco, 1993. Linking to this book chapter from other websites is permissible. However, the contents of this chapter may not be copied, printed, or distributed in hard copy form without permission.]

Category Exam Design
Keywords Student; teaching; Exam; Test Anxiety
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