Test Anxiety: a journey through research

Oct 28, 2020Other, Anxiety

Test Anxiety: a journey through research

If you are struggling with test or exam anxiety this blog will provide you with some research behind it and also introduce you to my research on test anxiety.

Hi, I’m Linda.

This is the third blog in my mini-series looking at exam anxiety but particularly my journey and what I have learnt over the years.

Have a look at my first blog at the beginning of my journey

My second blog is about 3 things I learnt

This blog is about research even if you are not a researcher or academic type of person I hope that this blog will be valuable to you.

For people who are not sure of what research is here is a brief definition.

According to the Collins Dictionary:

Research is work that involves studying something and trying to discover facts about it.

What is test anxiety?

Let’s just have a recap from my previous blogs.

Well if you have started feeling nervous before or just as you walk into a test or exam, you could be suffering from test anxiety. You might have physical symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, or changes in appetite. You might have emotional problems such as worrying, difficulty concentrating or feeling anxious.

There could be lots of other things that you are experiencing but haven’t connected them to test or exam anxiety, such as backache.

Anxiety is

Anxiety is what we feel when we are worried, tense or afraid – particularly about things that are about to happen, or which we think could happen in the future. Anxiety is a natural human response when we perceive that we are under threat. It can be experienced through our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations. Mind 2020.

Whereas test anxiety is

…a combination of physiological over-arousal, tension and somatic symptoms, along with worry, dread, fear of failure, and catastrophizing, that occur before or during test situations. Zeidner M. (1998)

With test anxiety, it’s specific to the test situation.

However, there are changing definitions of test anxiety as more research is carried out.

Why should I be interested in the research about test anxiety?

Research is evidence.

I use research and evidence to guide me in the right ways of working with clients and now I understand how I used to feel all those years ago when I felt anxious about tests and exams.

If you want to stop unnecessary exam anxiety you need to know what has been shown to work.

The good news is that there are many techniques that will work to reduce test anxiety for many people. But you are unique so some things will work really well for you and some things won’t work so well.

Is there a difference between test anxiety and exam anxiety?

When reading the literature the term test anxiety is often used for shorter tests such as a driving test or a spelling test and the word exam is usually used as an assessment at the end of a course. There are also other terms that are used such as exam stress.

But as discussed by Putwain in the Psychologist test anxiety and examination stress have many similarities.

Furthermore, test and exam anxiety are words that are often used interchangeably and can result in the same thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

The literature shows us that methods of helping people with tests also help with exams and any other type of assessment.

What has been found about test anxiety so far?

Both educationalists and psychologists study test anxiety, so there are many studies. Here I will mention briefly the most well-known studies.

It’s known that test anxiety can cause a variety of symptoms that include:

  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach problems, shortness of breath and dry mouth.
  • Emotional problems such as anger, feeling sad, worrying, dreading the test.
  • Behavioural symptoms such as smoking, substance abuse, getting more fidgety or doing less.
  • Thought symptoms such as getting ‘brain fog’, racing thoughts, difficulty concentrating

The first studies about test anxiety were performed by Sarason and Mandler (1952). They felt that tests and exams evoke learning drives and anxiety drives. They developed the Test Anxiety Questionaire.

Hembree (1961) first linked test anxiety to behaviours. In a meta-analysis he reviewed 137 research studies.  At that time relaxation and systematic desensitization was being explored as treatments. He found students had a better reduction in test anxiety with an intervention.

A more recent meta-analysis by Ergene (2003) also reviewed the research and found that a variety of interventions helped. Treatments included relaxation, cognitive behavioural therapy, hypnosis etc.

Spielberg and Vagg (1995) developed a transactional model of test anxiety that superseded previous models as test anxiety is considered an interpersonal and interactive process. Spielberg identified test anxiety as a situation-specific personality trait.

…a situation-specific trait accounting for individual differences in the extent to which people find examinations threatening (Spielberger & Vagg, 1995).

Baker et al.’s. (2009) systematic review and meta-analysis reviewed five hypnotic treatments for test anxiety. Although the studies were small, they found that hypnosis was effective in reducing test anxiety.

Test anxiety has two main dimensions. It has a cognitive aspect which most people would call ‘worry’, and an affective component,  which is known as ’emotionality’. Both hypnosis and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help these dimensions.

Test anxiety can also be linked to procrastination and self-efficacy.

Some researchers, such as Cassady and Johnson (2002) describe it as a type of performance anxiety.

There have been several studies that look at areas of test anxiety that relate to careers and the concepts of test anxiety.

Test anxiety also has social consequences including an influence on work and the economy because assessments are needed for certain jobs.

What causes test anxiety?

  • Fear. It could be a fear of failure or a fear of being judged.
  • Inadequate study and practice
  • Previous bad past experiences with test-taking or anything associated with being judged

It is also related to the body’s stress responses i.e fight or flight response.

For many people, it causes a vicious cycle that is difficult to get out of.

How big is this problem?

Test and exam anxiety is a global problem. It is found in children and adults and affects people from all social backgrounds.

According to the American Test Anxieties Association 

About 16-20% of students have high test anxiety, making this the most prevalent scholastic impairment in our schools today.  Another 18% are troubled by moderately-high test anxiety.earch on tests and exam anxiety new?

What does the research tell us can help test anxiety?


Leaflets, information on the internet and teachers providing information can help people with test anxiety to identify it, understand it and seek interventions.

Academic preparation

In education, teachers try to help students by teaching exam techniques.  This is called ‘Test- wiseness’. They also help by doing study skills training. This helps students to learn.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

CBT focuses on thoughts, emotions and behaviours. These include ways to reframe thoughts by helping students to understand and restructure negative thought patterns.


Mindfulness is a way of focusing on the ‘here and now’. It helps you to notice how you are.


Any form of relaxation helps. For example, massage, meditation, deep breathing exercises.


Hypnosis helps to relax your mind and body. It also provides positive suggestions to influence change and reduce the anxiety. It can help to desensitise the thoughts and emotions related to the test and help you look to a positive future. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be used with hypnosis.

Practice self-care

Eat a healthy diet, get plenty of sleep, exercise, talk to friends or if things are getting more difficult, talk to a counsellor or other therapist.

Focus on the quality of studying rather than the quantity of time spent on studying. Finally, if symptoms persist, contact your doctor and get a health check.

My research

As part of my MSc in Hypnosis Research, Medicine and Clinical Practice, I decided to explore test anxiety in university students. My aim was to see if there was any difference between providing hypnotherapy for test anxiety online via videoconferencing compared to providing hypnotherapy face to face.

I hypnotised 30 students three times prior to their test, exam or assignment. I used the same techniques for both groups and I had a control group (The control group didn’t get hypnosis). I measured the amount of test anxiety they had before I started with hypnosis and after the third session to see if there had been any changes.

The results showed that the students did reduce their test anxiety with hypnosis and there was no significant difference between the two groups.

So if you are worried about a test or exam or if you feel worried about studying, please contact me to find out how I could help you with test or exam anxiety with hypnotherapy.

Awaken the Change is about Focusing Minds for Positive Results

Awaken the Change is a self-help service providing education and information.

Linda sees clients at her practice in Bournemouth, in the UK. She is also happy to provide online help via webcam for hypnotherapy, counselling and supervision. Counselling and supervision can also be provided by telephone.

Linda is an accredited trainer and supervisor.

Linda Witchell
Share This