“We live in a test conscious and test giving culture in which the lives of people are in part determined by their test performance”
Sarason, Davidson, & Lighthall
What’s interesting about this statement is, it was first published in 1960 and was based on students in the US, yet would not seem out of place in describing the situation in the UK. The UK, as with so many other things has unfortunately caught up with the US and become a nation that tests and measures…everything.
Where a person’s worth is judged only by the tests they have passed it is perhaps not surprising that examination success has become so important and test anxiety increased.
But it’s not just the UK, this is a global obsession, take China for example where the pressure to succeed has become so intense that cheating in the Gaokao, the nation’s university entrance exam is a major problem. The government has not been slow to react and for the first time anyone found cheating will face a possible seven year jail sentence. In Ruijin, east China’s Jiangxi Province, invigilators use instruments to scan students’ shoes before they entered the exam hall, while devices to block wireless signals are also used to reduce the opportunity to cheat.
Test anxiety or stress
Stress is a broad term that is experienced when you find yourself in adverse or demanding circumstances, sitting an exam perhaps. Test anxiety is a situation specific type of stress, experienced by people who find examinations threatening. Recently, there has been an increased interest in exam stress and test anxiety in the UK and a need for it to be given closer academic scrutiny.
The research so far shows that test anxiety can actually impair learning and hurt test performance. And this is the issue, are students underperforming in examinations, which as stated above can have a significant impact on their lives not because of their lack of knowledge or even their ability to apply knowledge, but simply because the medium used to assess them is an exam.
In simple terms test anxiety effects exams results and exam results play a major part in people’s lives.
There are three components of test anxiety (Zeidner 1998)
- Cognitive – the negative thoughts you can have during tests e.g. “if I fail this I will fail all my examinations” and the performance limiting difficulties experienced as a result of anxiety e.g. inability to read questions clearly or solve problems.
- Affective – physical symptoms e.g. trembling, tension etc.
- Behavioural – test anxiety creates an environment that encourages students to avoid studying or best delay it.
The reason people develop test anxiety is thought to be rooted in certain social issues e.g. how you are judged by others and the fear of failure in the public domain. It may also be related to the type of anxiety people experience when they have to make a best man’s speech, for example. Another aspect is that it is not always what others think, but what you think of yourself that is the issue and so the expectation of exam failure could impact on an individual’s ego and self-esteem.
Phase one is OK BUT
I think in the UK we are through the worst part of this, let’s call it phase one, and by that I mean we know that examinations and testing are not the answer, and that people are not their exam result. We have learned this the hard way by producing groups of exam qualified students, releasing them into the world of work, ill prepared to cope with the demands of the workplace. In addition, we have developed helpful techniques that enable people to better cope with test anxiety. Some of these I have discussed in previous blogs, Stress or Pressure – Don’t let the bridge collapse, Exam stress – Mindfulness and the “7/11” to name but two.
BUT………we still have some way to go with phase two, which involves answering the question, what do we replace exams with if they are so bad? And until we solve that, helping good people perform in the system we have just now is the best we can do.