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College Teaching
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Coping with Test Anxiety


a a
Donna L. Mealey & Timothy R. Host
a
Department of Curriculum and Instruction , Louisiana State University , Baton Rouge , USA
Published online: 28 Aug 2012.

To cite this article: Donna L. Mealey & Timothy R. Host (1992) Coping with Test Anxiety, College Teaching, 40:4, 147-150,
DOI: 10.1080/87567555.1992.10532238

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/87567555.1992.10532238

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Coping with Test Anxietv I

Donna L. Mealey and Timothy R. Host

F rom the time they enter kinder- What Causes Test Anxiety? patterns during the test. “I can’t do
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garten until they complete high In the past four decades, much re- this,” “I ’m not smart enough,” “The
school, students are subjected to search has examined the possible causes teacher is watching me,” and “Every-
an increasing number of tests and eval- of test anxiety. Two main sources have one is finishing before me” are com-
uations. Although most students face been identified. First, researchers be- mon thoughts that this type of test-
these situations with normal amounts lieve that some highly test-anxious stu- anxious student has reported during
of nervousness, some students do not dents have deficits in the organization- testing situations (Ganz and Ganz
cope well in testing situations and expe- al stage of test preparation, primarily 1988; Stipek 1988). Although these stu-
rience moderate to severe anxiety, inadequate learning or study skills dents may have adequate study skills,
which has a detrimental effect on their (Culler and Holahan 1980; Hodapp and they become distracted and anxious
test performances and, subsequently, Henneberger 1983; Naveh-Benjamin, during the test, causing poor perform-
their advancement. In teaching devel- McKeachie, Lin, and Tucker 1986; Witt- ance.
opmental reading to college freshmen, maier 1972). Because some students are In a related matter, other studies
we have seen many bright, able stu- unable to process or organize informa- have shown a link between poor study
dents who do poorly on tests and at- tion effectively for recall, they have skills and learned helplessness (Naveh-
tribute their performance to their ex- high levels of anxiety going into a test- Benjamin, McKeachie, and Lin 1987;
treme nervousness corning into the test ing situation. The problem, then, for Paulman and Kennelly 1984; Tobias
or their inability to “think” or concen- this type of student is not the test but 1985). Students who think they are stu-
trate during the test. rather the preparation for the test. dying effectively-but, in fact, are
Frustrated by seeing these hardwork- The second major cause of test anx- not-easily develop a sense of learned
ing students perform poorly on tests, iety stems from habitual, irrelevant, helplessness and come to fear taking
we examined the research on test anxie- negative thoughts that some students tests.
ty to see if we could discover ways to have during a testing situation (Mc- Therefore, it appears that there are
help them. We will present here a brief Keachie, Pollie, and Spiesman 1985; three main categories of test-anxious
summary of the typical causes of test Sarason 1984; Wine 1971). These nega- students: Those who (1) do not have
anxiety and discuss three ways that tive thoughts distract students from the adequate study and test preparation
teachers can help their test-anxious, or task of taking the test and cause them strategies, realize that deficiency, know
even simply “test-nervous,” students: to focus on their fears, inadequacies, they are not well prepared for testing
by teaching effective learning strate- and past failures. The effect is the crea- situations, and are worried; (2) have
gies, using cooperative learning, and tion of an attitude of “learned help- adequate strategies in their repertoire
providing a positive classroom atmos- lessness” (Dweck 1975; Dweck and and use them but become distracted
phere. Licht 1980; Schwarzer, Jerusalem, and during testing; or (3) mistakenly be-
Schwarzer 1983; Schwarzer, Jerusa- lieve they have adequate strategies, do
lem, and Stiksrud 1984; Seligman poorly on tests, and anxiously wonder
Donna L. Mealey is an assistant professor, 1975). Learned helplessness occurs why. We have seen all three types of
and Timothy R. Host was a graduate test-anxious students in our college de-
student in the Department of Curriculum when students who have failed or done
and Instruction of Louisiana State Univer- poorly in the past develop negative velopmental reading, undergraduate
sity in Baton Rouge. self-images, causing irrelevant thought education, and graduate classes. The

VOI. 40/No. 4 147


important issue, now, is to determine ly engages the student with the materi- According t o Slavin (1990), “[Tlwo of
what teachers can d o to help these stu- al. Strategies such as text annotation, the most important components of stu-
dents overcome their problems and ex- mapping, and self-questioning, to dents’ self-esteem are the feeling that
perience success. name but a few, help students encode they are well liked by their peers and
and elaborate the material into a mean- the feeling that they are doing well aca-
Suggestions for Helping Students ingful organization. Test-preparation demically. Cooperative learning meth-
with Te$t Anxiety strategies also reduce anxiety because ods affect both of these components
Research indicates that test-anxious students are actively involved in carry- . . .” (44).Social support or coopera-
students feel that they d o not know ing them out. When students manage tive learning can help reduce or elimi-
how to learn the course material and their study time, predict and prepare nate negative feelings and allow students
that they do not know what to do with for different testing formats, check the to concentrate more fully on the relevant
all of the information once they finish effectiveness of their study plans, and task of learning.
reading or studying it. They also feel evaluate subsequent test performance, Lambriotte, Dansereau, Rocklin,
alone, isolated, and, sometimes, hope- they are no longer simply reading the Fletcher, Hythecker, Larson, and
O’Donnell (1987) found that students
who use cooperative learning strategies
are able to recall more information
than students working alone. In addi-

S tudents working in groups demonstrate different


tion, McDonald, Larson, Dansereau,
and Spurlin (1985) found that the skills
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cognitive and study strategies to each other, and acquired during cooperative learning
they discuss information aloud. can transfer into individual study strat-
egies. When students work in groups,
they not only demonstrate different
cognitive and study strategies to each
other, but they also practice and re-
hearse text information aloud. Anoth-
er important outcome of a social sup-
less. Tests seem threatening, the teach- text, waiting for something to happen. port strategy is that students begin to
er’s way of “making” them fail and Students should be taught effective feel part of a group, rather than feeling
look bad. We see three areas in which study strategies; it is equally important alone.
all teachers can help test-anxious stu- that they understand when and how to We have found three other advan-
dents begin to overcome this difficulty. use them (Mealey 1990). By under- tages of using cooperative learning in a
standing the relevance and conditions college developmental reading pro-
Empower Students with Learning and under which different strategies may be gram as well as in content area courses.
Metacognitive Strategies used, students can gain control over First, students gain considerable in-
Many of the students we now teach their studying and test performance sight and confidence by working to-
in developmental reading have never and become successful learners. gether. A student sees how other stu-
learned or developed the strategies nec- dents approach the task of mapping,
essary for organizing, encoding, and Provide Opportunities for for example, and can imitate those ap-
retrieving information from texts. Social Support proaches. The task does not seem as
They believe that rereading the text and Students often develop anxiety as a threatening or overwhelming when the
their notes will make the information result of feeling isolated and alone. student has help getting started.
“stick.” They study passively, expect- They convince themselves that every- Second, eliciting student responses
ing to learn by looking at the pages of one else is a better learner than they are to reading and writing assignments in
words and believing, usually errone- and develop negative self-images that small groups has proven to be a posi-
ously, that if they look long enough, perpetuate their anxiety. Cooperative tive experience. For example, we re-
they will remember the material. learning-or, in this case, studying in cently assigned our classes a response
To help students with poor or few groups-can be effective in reducing paper to The Prince of Tides (Conroy
study strategies, Mealey (1990) recom- this type of student anxiety. 1986). We asked the students to discuss
mends “a content-based, strategic There is evidence for a positive rela- what they liked and disliked most
learning approach. Rather than em- tion between cooperative learning and about the book and its characters and
phasizing skills mastery, developmen- self-esteem (e.g., Blaney, Stephan, to describe the incident that left the
tal reading instructors can focus on Rosenfield, Aronson, and Sikes 1977; strongest impression on them. The fol-
teaching a variety of reading, study, Lazarowitz, Baird, Hertz-Lazarowitz, lowing day, we divided the class into
recitation, and test preparation strate- and Jenkins 1985; Madden and Slavin small groups and had each person read
gies . . .” (559). Such a program active- 1983), although it is not unequivocal. his or her paper to the group, which

148 COLLEGE TEACHING


then discussed the paper. At one point, and threatening environment. Teachers able minority wanted teachers to be en-
a slightly heated debate erupted: can reduce the intimidating quality of a couraging and accepting rather than
“What do you mean Lila is your favorite testing situation by using one of the judgmental after the test, even when
character because she is a good mother? easiest, yet least often attempted, students had not performed well.
She’s a terrible mother! She always made methods imaginable: Ask the students The simple gesture of finding out
the kids feel guilty, and she lied to them and what they want or need. what students want and need to reduce
used them. Remember after Rose died, she We asked our developmental reading
called Tom in and told him that the other
their anxiety is an important step in
kids were worthless and he was the only one students to write a response to the creating a more positive test-taking sit-
she could trust? And then she did the same question, “What might a teacher do uation. Sometimes, of course, teachers
thing to Luke and Savannah!” (or not do) to help you feel more re- may not want to comply with students’
“Yeah, but she taught them how to ap- laxed or less nervous before, during, wishes-for example, in the case of
preciate nature and reading, and she only and after a test?” The responses from students who have cheated on tests in
lied to protect them from being hurt by the
people in the town.” five classes (n = 102) were consistent the past. In general, however, respect-
and tended to fall into four main cate- ing students’ wishes in a testing situa-
The debate continued, each student gories: tion is not unreasonable, especially in
citing additional examples of why the
character was good or bad. At the end 1. More than half the students (n = developmental education courses where
of the class, we pointed out to the stu- 62) stated that the teacher should not test results may determine whether a
dents the value of what they had just talk or interrupt during a test. “I find student exits from the class and meets a
done: they had formed opinions about that when a teacher constantly disturbs university requirement.
For most teachers, few things are
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something they read and then logically the class, or repeatedly asks students to
refer back to another page of the test, more frustrating than seeing hard-
supported their opinions with relevant working students do poorly on tests be-
examples from the book. Through their it makes the student nervous because
he will think he doesn’t have enough cause they have test anxiety. By helping
group discussions, they were forced to students develop effective learning
think about why they felt or thought time and will rush.”
2. Approximately three-quarters of strategies, allowing them to learn from
the way they did. Students were sur- each other, and providing a positive at-
prised and pleased with this realiza- the students (n = 74) want the teacher
to review the material before a test. “I mosphere in the classroom, teachers
tion. Not only did group work help the can make it possible for anxious stu-
students see that they really could like it when a teacher goes over the ma-
terial with the entire class rather than dents to succeed.
think, it also prepared them for essay
exams in which they must support their have the students do it on their own.
opinions with quotes from the text. This gives the student a secure feeling
Students break the cycle of fear and that their notes are exact and correct.” REFERENCES
perceived inadequacy when they realize 3. Students (n = 67) asked that the Blaney, N. T., S. Stephan, D. Rosenfield,
their capabilities by working together. teacher not walk around during a test. E. Aronson, and J. Sikes. 1977. Interde-
Finally, students can use social sup- “Teachers should not walk around the pendence in the classroom: A field study.
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150 COLLEGE TEACHING