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More needs to be done to ease test anxiety for learners

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Systems change is needed to alleviate the impact of text anxiety on our learners, explains Gray Mytton, Assessment Innovation Manager at NCFE, and Emma Davies, Assessment Innovation Project Manager at The Really NEET Project.

More than two million learners in English schools will undertake one or more high stakes assessments at the end of the current academic year – in years 2,6,11 and 13- and there are millions more who will be facing the same challenge at college, university, and training providers, as well as those in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

For many, these high-stakes assessments will be a positive and fair experience. However, for a very significant minority, this experience and the assessment outcomes they achieve will be negatively affected by test anxiety. For example, in secondary schools it is estimated that 12-18% of pupils have high test anxiety, suggesting that hundreds of thousands of learners could benefit from an alternative system to high stakes assessment.

The performance impact caused by test anxiety reduces the validity of the assessment system to be a fair representation of what a person knows or can do. The current high-stakes system does not always reflect the knowledge and understanding that a learner has because it doesn’t take into account all the influences that might be in-play on exam day, including the impact of test anxiety.

That’s why we want to explore the ways in which systems change might be able to reduce the unfairness caused by test anxiety.

What is test anxiety?

Individuals with strong anxiety drives are more likely to undertake debilitating task-irrelevant behaviours than their less anxious peers, who will undertake facilitating task-directed behaviours. In the context of test anxiety, this can lead to disrupted preparation for a test and/or a disrupted test itself in the form of reduced cognitive processing.

Whilst test anxiety can manifest itself in physiological symptoms, research suggests that it is the pre-occupation of cognitive processing that can be linked to a reduction in test performance, because attention on the task is competing for cognitive space in test-anxious individuals.

The Really NEET Project’s learners, who are not in education, employment or training, having had significant challenges during their pre-16 education, report a myriad of impacts of their test anxiety related to cognitive load, including fear of failure, low self-esteem, overload of information, inability to retain information, misinterpreting instructions, poor concentration and impaired thinking caused by emotions.

It’s important to point out here that not everyone who experiences test anxiety will be negatively affected. For some, the stress produced by their anxiety can act as a driver towards improved preparation or concentration, which can increase test performance, and for others, the test anxiety they feel does not change their test performance. For those who do suffer negative impacts of test anxiety, the effect on performance is estimated to be relatively small at mark level and even smaller at grade level.

However, the perceived unfairness of high-stakes exams can undermine the whole assessment system, not to mention the negative impacts on a learner’s mental health and wellbeing.

The Really NEET Project has seen a direct link between the negative experiences of education that their learners have had previously and their current education which, unfortunately, often has to include further anxiety-creating high stakes assessment.

What are the solutions in the current system?

To support individuals in the current assessment system, there are a number of recognised anxiety reduction methods. These include:

  • Behavioural methods (for example desensitisation or relaxation training)
  • Cognitive methods (for example reducing emotionality in the context of assessments)
  • Study skills
  • Assessment literacy.

All of these methods aim to enhance an individual’s ability to cope with their anxiety so that their test performance is less affected. However, opportunities to access these types of interventions are not uniform (and are arguably systematically underfunded and under-prioritised in mainstream education), inevitably leading to further disadvantage for those who aren’t able to access this support.

This isn’t just about funding, however. Really NEET has seen a stereotyping of this problem in schools leading to inequality of the provision of services to boys due to learners masking their anxiety and/or staff perceiving this to be a female issue.

What are the systems changes that could alleviate test anxiety?

As we have alluded to here, high stakes are not all good or all bad, but the reliance on them in the English education system does impact on the fairness of test results for some people.

The reduction in importance of these assessments, as well as an increase in the use of assessment results taken throughout a learning journey, is a good place to start to try and identify appropriate systems change:

  • Increase the depth of feedback following summative assessment. Placing an emphasis on meaningful feedback to inform a learner’s next steps in education or work could reduce the element of anxiety that comes from being graded because it is seen as a continual journey through lifelong education rather than a cliff-edge moment. This could also increase the perceived value of formal assessment activities for learners.
  • Increase the use of adaptive assessment. Early research suggests that learners experience higher test anxiety when taking paper-based tests compared to adaptive on-screen assessments, possibly because the questions are pitched at an appropriate level for the learner to experience some success during the assessment.
  • Decouple a learner’s assessment outcomes from the accountability system. Teachers can add anxiety to their learners’ assessment experiences through the passing on of their own anxiety about the assessment outcomes or through “fear appeal” language when talking about as upcoming assessment. By assessing the quality of education separately to a learner’s knowledge, teachers may be able to reduce the anxiety that they inadvertently pass on.
  • Provide more opportunities for learners to demonstrate their knowledge, skills and behaviours. The use of modular learning programmes, non-examined assessment and paired adaptive testing (which provides second chance opportunities for learners within the assessment) could all reduce the high-stakes nature of summative assessments.
  • Reduce test anxiety by camouflaging assessments. Camouflaging assessments within immersive experiences, such as games, stories and virtual reality spaces, is intended to reduce the feeling that the learner is being assessed and therefore reduce the anxiety response.

Special thanks to Janet Scott from NCFE’s Research & Insight team for the research into test anxiety that informed this article.

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