Fighting Test Anxiety in the Classroom


Written by: Ashley Green (cehdcomm@tamu.edu)
Post date: May 08, 2018

With final exams and more STAAR testing happening over the next few weeks, anxiety among students at every level is extremely high.

“For children, teens and young adults, school is where they spend a significant portion of their waking hours and students are expected to learn and achieve academically. Stress, pressures and anxieties are especially high during exam and testing time.”

Dr. Jeffrey Liew, professor of educational psychology, has spent years researching how people manage their feelings, thoughts and behaviors in order to set and achieve their goals, including academically.

His most recent research focuses on struggling readers and their performance on standardized tests in reading and math starting from first into third grade. Dr. Liew and his colleagues found the key to success may lie in their positive peer relationships at school.

“These positive friendships in the classroom appear to be the active ingredient in transforming these struggling readers into academically resilient and successful readers who performed well in their standardized reading tests,” explained Dr. Liew. “Having positive peers at school to motivate and offer support to the struggling readers could be what helped them rise above and excel in a school subject that they were struggling with and relatively weak on just two years earlier.”

For Dr. Liew, this research points to the importance of designing a curriculum and classroom where collaborative learning is valued, expected and promoted. He says that may help alleviate students’ test anxiety and boost their scores all at the same time.

Test anxiety is not just a concern for K-12 students. Dr. Liew and his colleagues also found anxiety at the college level, especially when it comes to math. An interesting find is that students’ math anxiety differed significantly from year-to-year, with the lowest anxiety for freshmen and the highest anxiety for seniors.

“We believe our research has implications for college students who suffer from test or math anxiety and for preventing underperformance that stems from emotional or psychological reasons, rather than lack of knowledge or ability,” added Dr. Liew.

His research focuses on avoidance temperament, specifically social-evaluative threat and the imposter syndrome. For many students, anxiety comes from social-evaluative threat - fear of failure and fear of being seen as unintelligent or incompetent. Others suffer from the imposter syndrome, an internalized fear that you will be exposed as a phony or a fraud because you feel inadequate or incompetent, even if you are truly prepared and capable.


“For students who suffer from high levels of test anxiety or have an internalized fear of being exposed as an imposter, it is important to learn effective ways for emotional self-regulation. That includes managing negative thoughts or negative self-talk.”


Brenna Lin, one of Dr. Liew’s graduate students involved in the research, recommends school districts pay attention to students’ psychological well-being and provide anxiety interventions for the students who may benefit from it as early as possible. The concern is not only about test performance, but also about how that anxiety can impact future academics and future careers.

“High levels of anxiety associated with testing and math may deter individuals early on from further participating in academic activities and close doors on the types of majors and careers they can enter into,” explained Lin.

If you have that big test to take today, what simple activities can you do to reduce that anxiety?

“Try to calm some of the worries in your head by being present-minded. You can do that through your senses: vision, auditory, taste, smell or touch. In a testing environment, it is easier to tap into some of these senses versus others,” said Lin. “Some things that may help to recenter your focus are thinking about your weight in the chair, the pencil against your hand. Most importantly, take deep breaths.”

“Practice positive affirmation and focus on your own strengths, assets, successes and improvements,” added Dr. Liew. “This will help prevent falling into the trap of comparing yourself to others and feeling less capable and less worthy than others.”