Ten tips on reducing test anxiety for online test-takers

Picture of lady biting her nailsJohn Kleeman HeadshotPosted by John Kleeman

I’ve been reading about test anxiety (concern or worry by participants sufficiently severe that it impacts test performance). I’d like to share some tips on how online assessment sponsors can reduce its likelihood.

When creating and delivering tests, you seek to accurately measure knowledge, skills or abilities. Often you want to check competence or mastery for workplace or compliance reasons. If some of your participants have severe test anxiety, this doesn’t just disrupt them, it makes your test less accurate in measuring real performance. You might end up failing someone who is competent, just because anxiety affects their test performance.

Many studies (for example here) report that online tests cause less test anxiety than paper ones. Here are some suggestions on reducing test anxiety:

1. Some people have anxiety about a test because they haven’t mastered the subject being tested. Provide a clear description of what each test covers before the time of the test, and provide study resources or instruction to allow people to master the subject.

2. Test anxiety can also feed on unknowns, for instance on unfamiliarity with the test or believing untrue myths. Share information about the test’s purpose and what you do to make it fair. Also share information about the content: how many questions, how the scoring works, how much time is available and so on. Explain what happens if someone fails – for instance is it possible to retake?

3. It’s hugely valuable to provide practice tests that participants can try out before the real test. This will tell them where they are strong and weak and allow them to gain confidence in a less stressful environment prior to the real test. See my article 10 reasons why practice tests help make perfect exams for other reasons why practice tests are useful.

4. Give participants an opportunity to practice using the same type of computer, mouse, keyboard and user interface as will be used for the real test. This familiarizes them with the test environment and reduces potential anxiety, particularly for those who are less computer literate. If you are using Questionmark to deliver the test, make practice sessions available with the same template settings and the same types of questions. (Sometimes this is done with a fun quiz on a different topic, just to get people accustomed to the user interface.)

5. If you provide guidance to test-takers, point to self-help resources for people who have test anxiety. ETS provide a good resource here for instance. Another resource from the University of California is here.

6. Some self-help resources suggest breathing exercises or other exercises people can follow to reduce tension for people who are anxious about tests. Provide an environment where this is practical and train your test administrators and proctors about the prevalence of test anxiety.

7. If you have a way of encouraging test takers to sleep, take exercise and eat healthily, all these things aid a rational approach to taking a test and reducing anxiety.

8. If it works in your programme, consider whether it’s worth having a series of tests rather than a single test, so there is not a single “make or break” moment for participants. A series of tests can have other benefits too. It makes cheating harder, and by spreading out learning and revision, it can make participants retain the learning better.

9. People with disabilities are more likely to suffer test anxiety. Ensure that your program of accommodations takes this into account. See this helpful article on reducing test anxiety for people with disabilities.

10. Above all, create good quality, fair tests. If you follow good practice in authoring your questions and assessments, then there is less to be anxious about, as the test will be a good measure of performance. See Questionmark’s white paper “Five Steps to Better Tests” for some helpful advice in creating tests.

Many Questionmark users provide very effective practice quizzes and tests which help reduce test anxiety, and I hope these tips are helpful, too.

I’d love to hear additional input or suggestions.

10 reasons why practice tests help make perfect exams

John Kleeman HeadshotPosted by John Kleeman

Giving the opportunity for candidates / participants to take a practice or mock version of an exam before they take the real thing has huge benefits for all stakeholders. Here are 10 reasons why including practice tests within your exam programme will improve it.

1. Most importantly, practice tests tell candidates which topics they have not mastered and encourage them to focus future learning on weak areas.

2. Almost as important, practice tests tell candidates which topics they have already mastered. They can then direct their learning to other areas and spend minimal further time on the topics they already know.

3. Practice tests can also feed back to the instructional team the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate and for the candidate group. It can tell which topics have been successfully learned and which areas need more work.

image4. It’s well understood in psychology that you are more likely to retain something if you learn it spaced (separated) over time. Since practice tests stimulate revision and studying, they encourage earlier learning and so space out learning, which is likely to improve retention. See this Slideshare for more information on how assessments can help space out learning.

5. The accuracy and fairness of exams can be impacted by some candidate’s fear or anxiety around the exam process. Practice tests can reduce test anxiety. To quote ETS on test anxiety:

“The more you are accustomed to sitting for a period of time, answering test questions, and pacing yourself, the more comfortable you will feel when you actually sit down to take the test.”auth-collab-350x200

6. Accuracy and fairness can also be impacted by problems with familiarization or incompatibilities with the computers and software used for the testing. If the same equipment and software can be used in practice, this greatly reduces the chance of problems.

7. Taking a test doesn’t just measure how much you know, it helps reinforce the learning and make it more likely that you can retrieve the same information later. It’s a surprising fact that taking a test can actually be more beneficial to learning than spending the same amount of time studying. See Evidence from Medical Education that Quizzes Do Slow the Forgetting Curve for one of many research studies showing this.

8. Giving formative or practice tests seems to improve learning as well as final exam results. See Evidence that topic feedback correlates with improved learning or  Where’s the evidence for assessment? for a couple of articles with evidence of this.

9. Such tests are consistent with good practice and with assessment standards. For example the international standard on delivering assessments in the workplace ISO 10667 states:

“The service provider shall … where appropriate, provide guidance on ways in which the assessment participant might prepare for the assessment, including access to approved or recommended sample and practice materials”

10. It is crucial that exams  are fair and that they are seen to be fair. By providing practice tests, you remove the mystique from your exams and allow people to see the question styles, to practice the time planning required and to have a fair view of what the exam consists of. It helps level the playing field and promotes the concept of a fair exam, open to and equal for all.

Not all these reasons apply in every organization, but most do.  I hope this article helps remind you why practice tests are valuable and encourages their use.