Test anxiety causes students to underperform in examinations

            It has been a common alibi or shall we at least consider a reason for students who did not performed well in examinations that they got nervous or anxious during the exams. Underperformance in examinations however are results of several factors including unpreparedness, lack of skill in the specific course where the exam has been taken or some sort of health-related reasons. It is however important to stress that whichever of these factors present or maybe all of these in the student are taking the exams anxiety is a normal in humans.

Health experts regard anxiety as “the body’s response to something threatening in the environment” (M. Despain). Actually, anxiety is positively considered as 1helpful tool in boosting the human mind to perform at normal levels by keeping us alert, focused, motivated and energized. Research indicates that the optimal amount of stress to maximize performance is a moderate degree.  Anxiety as a form of stress maximizes performance at normal level but negatively affects performance at either too low or too high levels. Further, physical symptoms of anxiety do not interfere with exam performance but what is going on in the mind of the one taking the exams (D. Palmer, pg.2). Anxiety works in stressful situations as worries that interfere with concentration. But what are important to find out first are the causes or sources of anxiety.

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There are many sources or causes of anxiety which range from lack of preparation, too much worries about the past, present and future situations including self expectations and a consideration of the expectation of others. Poor time management resulting to cramming, poor study habits and inefficient organization of either materials or information required in the examination. Putting attention on unnecessary things and thoughts also contribute a lot to the student’s anxiety. Thinking too much of what the other students have been doing with notions as “are they done?” or “I am already behind” are things that unnecessarily consumes time and concentration on unrelated matters. Anticipating the reactions of others and anticipation of a failure to meet expectations can also add up to the anxiety of the student taking away his concentration from understanding the questions and of recalling the right way of answering them. The sum of all of these possibilities can be expressed in just two general hypotheses. First test anxiety is a product of the student’s underestimation of his ability or resources available to perform well in the examination. Second test anxiety is a normal reaction of the student’s knowledge of his lack of preparation.

There are certain theoretical models that offer explanations and arguments as to the effect of anxiety to the test performance of the student. Two of the most famous and conflicting models are the interference model and the deficit model. Interference model asserts that test anxiety is accompanied by lower test performance and that anxiety directly and negatively interferes with test performance (I.G. Sarason, 1988). Its argument was based on study results which showed that students who did not perform well in examinations (scheduled and timed) performed better in take home examinations. The model’s main point was that there are students who are well-prepared before the examination but due to anxiety that somehow preoccupied and divided his attention, the student was unable to concentrate and be able to effectively recall what he had studied. The result then is poor performance which has an inverted result when the student was given take home examinations where there is an obvious absence or at least lower level of pressure and stress.

Deficit Model however offers a contradicting explanation on how anxiety affects test performance. This model asserts that low level of performance in examinations is a result of the deficient knowledge of the subject and the lack or inadequate mastery (Birenbaum ; Pinku, 1997 as cited in Musch ; Broder, 1999. pg. 106). Using this model, anxiety therefore does not directly cause the underperformance of a student in the examination, rather, his unpreparedness and the lack of cognitive skills cause him to be anxious which in turn negatively affect his test performance. However we can clearly see that both models have valid points to consider. Considering that the studies upon which they based their arguments are valid, we can say that anxiety, whatever its cause negatively affects a student’s performance and therefore results to his underperformance. Considering the fact that there are students who can perform well in less pressured subjects and environments and there are also those who still poorly perform even in the absence of pressure, the vital role of anxiety in test performances cannot be disregarded.

In the separate study done by Musch and Broder, they were able to find out that the “academic performance of highly anxious students is affected both directly by their lack of knowledge and indirectly by the cognitive distraction created by task-irrelevant thinking in the test situation” (pg. 114). Although there was a difference in the results when math-related subjects are concerned, we can still see that preparation is still a determinant of the level of anxiety that the student will likely have during the examination. Whatever subjects an examination is to be taken proper preparation is still the best means of combating anxiety. However we cannot still disregard the role of the student’s “confidence” when taking examinations in areas where they find more interesting than other subjects.

It is important for researchers to also look into the role of anxiety in oral and written examinations as there are obvious differences in such results. For example, there are students who are more pressured when it comes to oral tests compared with written examinations. When this area is considered, researchers may find another area of consideration as to their explanation of the negative effects of anxiety in test performances. Finally this paper would like to reiterate that inference model and deficit model do not offer exclusive convincing explanations of how anxiety causes students to underperform in examinations. This writer maintains that the combination of causes offered by both models directly and negatively affects the student’s test performance.


1Overcoming Exam Anxiety. Retrieved on August 05, 2007 from http://www.sfu.ca/hccc/01hccc_home/documents/ExamAnxiety.pdf

Despain, Michelle. Test Anxiety Affects Performance. The Utah Statesman Online. April 15, 2002. Retrieved on August 05, 2007 from http://media.www.utahstatesman.com/media/storage/paper243/news/2002/04/15/Features/Test-Anxiety.Affects.Performance-236919.shtml

Froemling, Todd. Test Anxiety Thwarts Students. The Daily Vidette Online. September 21, 2005. Retrieve on August 05, 2007 from http://media.www.dailyvidette.com/media/storage/paper420/news/2005/09/21/News/Test-Anxiety.Thwarts.Students-991841-page2.shtml

Musch, Jochen ; Arndt Broder (1999). Test Anxiety versus Academic Skills: A Comparison of Two Alternative Models for Predicting Performance in a Statistics Exam. British Journal of Educational Psychology. March 1999;69,pages 106-116. Proquest Educational Journals

Palmer, David. Exam Anxiety. Retrieved on August 05, 2007 from http://csd.mcmaster.ca/academic%20series%20pdfs/tests%20and%20exams/exam%20anxiety.pdf

What Causes Anxiety? The University of Alabama Center for Teaching and Learning. Retrieved on August 05, 2007 from http://www.ctl.ua.edu/CTLStudyAids/StudySkillsFlyers/TestPreparation/whatcausestestanxiety.htm

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