Test anxiety causes university students to underperform in their examinations. Discuss.

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This essay examines the relationship between test anxiety in university students
and their performance in examinations. Typically, universities use examinations
to test part or even all the knowledge of students, particularly in first-year
courses. As Burns (2004, p. 120) noted, examination results can determine if a
student passes a course or can progress onto further study, and may even
influence employment opportunities. Understandably, educators are concerned
that examinations are a fair indication of a student’s knowledge. One area of
special interest is the role anxiety plays in relation to examination performance.
This essay argues that in general, test anxiety lowers performance slightly,
although this is not evident in all situations, nor with all types of students.
Further, it is argued that the main mechanism for this result appears to be that
test anxiety leads to the development of interfering thoughts, which prevent a
proper focus on examination tasks. The essay also points out that although many
factors impact on examination performance, test anxiety is of particular interest
as it appears to lead directly to unfair results.
Test anxiety is normally understood as a form of debilitating anxiety, although
how it is measured varies. Early research indicated there were two forms of test
anxiety: facilitative and debilitative. Facilitative anxiety is understood as a type of
anxiety that students recognise as being helpful. For example, students answer
positively to a question such as “Nervousness during a test helps me to do
better” (Alpert & Haber, 1960, p. 213). Facilitative anxiety helps students
succeed and has been found to be present in students with better results in tests
of all kinds (Hembree, 1988, p. 59). However, since the 1960s, it is debilitative
anxiety that has come to be called ‘test anxiety’. It is defined by Sarason (1984)
as the anxiety experienced in “one important definable class of threatening
situations, those in which people are evaluated” (p. 929). Most researchers have
recognised that test anxiety is complex. It can involve a large range of features,
including thoughts, emotions, behaviours and body reactions such as tension or
headache (Sarason, 1984, p. 931). Following from the work of Liebert and Morris
(as cited in Hembree, 1988, p. 48) test anxiety has generally been examined in
terms of ‘worry’ or ‘emotionality’, or some extension of these.