Allaying Students’ Anxieties About Tests

[From the hard copy book Tools for Teaching by Barbara Gross Davis; Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco, 1993. Linking to this book chapter from other websites is permissible. However, the contents of this chapter may not be copied, printed, or distributed in hard copy form without permission.]

Anxiety can interfere with students’ performance on tests. You can reduce students’ anxiety and enhance their performance by taking care in how you prepare students for an exam, how you administer and return the test, and how you handle makeup tests. All students, but especially freshmen and sophomores, can benefit from knowing what they will be asked to do on an exam and under what conditions. Students will also feel more relaxed and less intimidated if you provide reassurance and encouragement rather than dire warnings about a test’s difficulty. The suggestions below are designed to help you prepare your students to do their best on tests.

  General Strategies

Make the first exam relatively easy. Research on motivation indicates that early success in a course increases students’ motivation and confidence (Lucas, 1990). In particular, students who do well on the first test generally improve their grades on subsequent tests (Guskey, 1988).

Give more than one examination. The length of the school term, the difficulty level of the course, and the amount of course material all determine the number of exams an instructor gives. Periodic testing during the term has been shown to improve students’ performance on the final exam (Lowman, 1984). Giving two or more midterm exams also spreads out the pressure, allows students to concentrate on one chunk of material at a time, and allows students and instructors to monitor progress.

Avoid “pop” quizzes. Unannounced or surprise quizzes may penalize students who are unable to prepare for every single class meeting. (Source: Jacobs and Chase, 1992)

Give students advice on how to study. Help students develop appropriate study strategies to organize and understand information from the assigned readings and class notes. Consult with your student learning center for information. Also see “Helping Students Learn.” (Source: Mealey and Host, 1992)

Encourage students to study in groups. According to researchers, students who study in groups recall more information than students working alone and are able to overcome their feelings of academic inadequacy and isolation (Mealey and Host, 1992).

Schedule extra office hours before a test. Some instructors schedule extra office hours for the week or so before an exam to give students a chance to ask questions and go over difficult aspects of the material. They especially encourage study groups to visit during office hours.

Schedule review sessions before major exams. See “The Last Days of Class” for advice on how to structure a review session.

Ask students how you can help them feel less anxious. Students often make requests that faculty can easily accommodate, such as providing information about the test format, offering a review session, or refraining from walking around during the exam. (Source: Mealey and Host, 1992)

  Preparing Students for an Exam

Give a diagnostic test early in the term. An early diagnostic test alerts students to the prerequisite skills and knowledge they need to succeed in your class. Some faculty give diagnostic tests throughout the term to identify which students are keeping up and which need help and to enable all students to identify the areas they need to work on. These diagnostic tests provide students with quick and frequent feedback and typically do not count heavily in the final grade. (Sources: Ericksen, 1969; Svinicki, 1976)

Attach a pool of final exam questions to the course syllabus and distribute both on the first day of class. A faculty member who uses this technique attaches to the syllabus fifty essay questions, all of which the class discusses during the term. The final exam is composed of five essay questions from the list. Under this system, students need not spend the semester worrying about what will be on the final. If the exam is too long to be attached to the syllabus, bind it to the course reader so that every student has a copy at a small additional cost. (Source: “Exams: Alternative Ideas and Approaches,” 1989)

Put old exams on file in the department office or library. Reviewing past exams gives students clues about what to study. Students can analyze old exams for format (length of test, number of points for each type of question), types of questions, and level of difficulty. If your campus is networked, you can enter exams onto a file server and students can retrieve them whenever they want.

Distribute practice exams. Practice tests with answers help students gauge what is expected of them. You can use practice exams as the basis for review sessions or student study groups. If you will be administering a multiple-choice test, you could distribute the stems of multiple-choice questions but not the response choices; for example, “Which of the following statements best characterizes Melanie Kleins view of the first year of life?” (Source: Erickson and Strommer, 1991)

Before an exam, explain the format to students. Let students know the number of questions, whether the test will be multiple-choice or essay and open or closed book, and whether they can bring in notes.

Give students advice on how to prepare for an exam. For example, remind them to allocate their study time in proportion to the relative importance of various topics. See “Multiple-Choice and Matching Tests” and “Short-Answer and Essay Tests” for suggestions to give students for those types of exams. To lessen students’ tension before a test, give the following recommendations:

  • Avoid cramming by spreading studying over several weeks.
  • Eat sensibly the night before a test and get a good night’s sleep.
  • Arrive early for the test.
  • Take deep relaxing breaths as the test starts.
  Administering Tests

Duplicate extra copies of the exam. Have extra copies on hand to replace copies that have blank pages or are collated incorrectly. (Source: McKeachie, 1986)

Administer the test yourself. You will want to be present to announce any corrections (of typographical errors, for example) or changes in the exam. Your presence can also motivate and reassure students and signal to them the importance of the test. Arrive early on the day of the test to answer questions and stay late to talk with students. (Sources: Jacobs and Chase, 1992; Lowman, 1984)

Read the instructions aloud at the beginning of class. Even if you write the clearest of instructions, it is helpful to read them aloud to the class. Ask students whether they have any questions about what they are supposed to do. Be brief, however, since students want to use their time to show you what they know.

Plan for “what ifs.” Decide how you will respond to questions such as “What if we don’t finish?” or “What if we think two answers are correct?”

Minimize temptations for cheating. Actively proctor exams, unless your institution is on the honor system.

Don’t hover over the class. Bring a book or work that will occupy you so that you will not be looking over students’ shoulders. But be watchful to discourage cheating. (Source: Mealey and Host, 1992)

If there is no clock in the room, keep students apprised of the time. At the start of the exam write on the board the beginning time, the finishing time, and the time remaining. Once or twice update the time remaining and announce the last segment (“You have five minutes left.”). Some faculty give students prompts during the test (“If you are not yet on question 5, you need to work a little more quickly”). Keep to the finishing time -it is unfair to allow some students to go on working when others must leave to go to another class.

Devote part of the session to reviewing the answers with students. One faculty member gives a thirty-minute midterm in a fifty-minute class. Students turn in their answer sheets after thirty minutes, but they keep the question sheet. The remaining class time is devoted to going over the correct answers and answering questions (Friedman, 1987). A variation on this technique is to divide the class into small groups and have them review answers and then reconvene as a class to discuss areas of disagreement or confusion. Another option is to ask for student volunteers who will meet with you immediately after the test to identify any specific problems with the exam. Or you could set up a student exam review committee. See “Preparing to Teach the Large Lecture Course.”

Make one copy of the answer sheet available at the end of the test period. One faculty member described by Jacobs and Chase (1992) places a corrected test copy (multiple-choice items) on his desk so that students can review it after they have turned in their own exam. This is only possible, of course, in small classes.

  Letting Students Show What They Know

Give students the opportunity to comment on the test. Researchers report that giving students space on the test itself to explain their responses to multiple-choice items helped relieve students’ anxiety and reduced posttest complaints from students. Students were directed to write a short justification for any answer they felt needed more explanation or for questions they perceived to be tricky. The researchers noted that students averaged less than one explanation per test over four tests. The instructors added a point for a “good explanation of a wrong answer” and subtracted a point for “a bad explanation of a right answer” (Dodd and Leal, 1988; Nield and Wintre, 1986). Or you can ignore the comments on those items for which a student selected the correct multiple-choice option. Some faculty offer students extra credit for rewriting multiple-choice items (limit two items per test).

Include a blank question on the exam. Ask students to write a question or pose a problem that they were well prepared to answer. Grade students on the quality of the question (level of difficulty, appropriateness) and their answer. (Source: “Exams: Alternative Ideas and Approaches,” 1989)

Include one or more extra-credit questions on the exam. Give students the opportunity to answer additional questions for extra credit at the end of the test. Add these points to their scores and to offset items they answered incorrectly.

Let students “buy” information from you during the exam. Tell students that midway through the exam (say, between twenty and thirty minutes of a sixty-minute test) they can ask you questions for a price. The price is losing points from their total score. For example, a student might ask whether an answer is right or wrong at a cost of one penalty point; an equation or formula may cost two penalty points; a diagram setup, four penalty points; and so on. A faculty member in mathematics who uses this technique reports that half of a typical class takes advantage of this approach to help them “unfreeze” on difficult problems. A chemistry professor uses a similar strategy but makes the option available to all students. He distributes a “test insurance page,” in a lottery scratch-off format, to students along with their exams. The page contains clues to answers; each time students scratch off a clue, points are deducted from their total score. (Sources: Ellis, 1992; Gordon, 1988)

Let students bring in “crib sheets.” As reported in “Exams: Alternative Ideas and Approaches” (1989) and Janick (1990), some faculty have had success by asking students to prepare one 5″ x 8″ index card that they can consult during the exam. According to the faculty, this technique helps students make decisions about what material is most important, and it can alleviate pretest anxiety. Vessey and Woodbury (1992) report negative effects of using crib sheets. Students, they believe, become “crib sheet focused”; they fall to answer the exam questions appropriately and instead look for key words on the test question that they can match to key terms on their crib sheet. When a match is found, students simply end up transcribing their crib sheet to their test.

Encourage students to evaluate the exam. If you want a sense of how students felt about the exam, ask them to complete an unsigned evaluation form that poses questions such as the following (adapted from “Let Students Grade the Exam,” 1987):

  • Did the content you expected to see appear on this exam?
  • Identify the questions you never expected to see.
  • Were the questions clear enough that, even though you may not have known the answer, you knew what was being asked?
  • What questions confused you?
  • Or ask students to give a letter grade to the content, format, and fairness of the test.

Give students “a second chance to learn.” After students turn in their in-class, closed-book exam, they receive a second copy to take home and complete as an open-book exam. Both exams are scored, and students can earn back up to one-half of the points lost on the in-class exam. A variation is not to give students a take-home test but instead to schedule, some days later, a repeat test containing equivalent items. Grading is handled by weighting the two exams differently: the lower score counts 25 percent and the higher score 75 percent. (Sources: Davidson, House, and Boyd, 1984; Murray, 1990)

  Returning Examinations

Return test papers promptly. Most students are anxious to know how they have done, and a quick turnaround also encourages relearning or corrective learning. Most experts recommend that tests be returned within five days. Laws governing the privacy and confidentiality of student records forbid the posting of grades by name, initials, or student numbers; confidentiality andconcerns about security also dictate that exams not be left in a pile in the department office for students to pick up. If you cannot return papers to your students during class or office hours (using photo IDs if necessary), arrange for a staff member in the department to return the tests. For example, let students know that they can pick up their own test from the department secretary between 3 and 5 p.m. in the department office. (Sources: Lowman, 1984; Unruh, 1990)

Use some class time to discuss the overall results. After making some general comments on how the class performed as a whole, you can show the general distribution of scores, note items missed by many people, and correct widespread misunderstandings. For essay tests, describe what you expected in a good answer and the most common problems. Some faculty read or distribute unsigned excerpts from outstanding papers. Smith (1992) returns graded multiple-choice exams to students and then divides them into groups to discuss the answers among themselves. “Questionable” questions are referred to the instructor for discussion by the entire class. She reports that having students review exams in groups often takes less time than her own reviews and students report enjoying it more. (Source: McKeachie, 1986; Smith, 1992)

Schedule extra office hours after returning a test. Students who come to see you may be angry or may try to have their grades changed.

  • Request that students wait twenty-four hours before coming to see you. This gives them a chance to reread the exam, cool down, and prepare specific questions.
  • Let students know that if they request a review of the grading of their test, you reserve the right to change the grade either positively or negatively.
  • Ask students to come with specific questions (not “Why is my grade so low?”). Some faculty request that students prepare a brief paragraph expressing their complaint and justifying the correctness of their answer.
  • When a student comes to see you, listen carefully. Do not interrupt the student to rebut each point.
  • Try to shift the focus of the discussion from grades to problemsolving. Ask, “What can we do to help you do better next time?” Help the student shift his or her attitude from blaming you or the test toward gaining motivation to work more effectively.
  • Don’t change a grade out of sympathy or compassion but only because you have made a clerical error or mistakenly evaluated a response.

(Sources: Jacobs and Chase, 1992; Jedrey, 1984, McKeachie, 1986)

  Arranging Makeup Tests

Avoid the need to arrange for makeup tests by giving frequent exams. Makeup tests are problematic. If you devise a new test, it might not be comparable to the original test. But if you use the same test, some students may have talked to others who took the original test. Scheduling a makeup test also poses logistical problems. One way to avoid using makeup tests is to give four exams, for example, and count the grades of only three. Students who take all four tests can drop their lowest score. Students who miss an exam will be graded on the three they have taken. Some faculty who give two midterms give double weight to one if a student misses the other. (Source: McKeachie, 1986)

Give students options on the number of tests they take. Buchanan and Rogers (1990) offer students the following options: (1) four multiple-choice tests, (2) four multiple-choice tests and a final, or (3) three multiple-choice tests and a final. In options one and three, each test is worth 25 percent of the course grade; in option two, each test is worth 20 percent. Students who miss one of the multiple-choice tests must elect option three. Students who miss two tests are handled on a case-by-case basis. The researchers report that about 5 percent of the students elect to miss any given test.

Give an additional exam for the entire class at the end of the semester. The grade on this extra test can replace a missed exam or replace a lower grade. This procedure frees you from policing excuses and illness on exam days. This option also helps out the student who has an off day on a test. (Source: Shea, 1990)

Hand out essay questions in advance. If you distribute in advance a list of essay questions from which the midterm questions will be taken, you will not have to write a makeup test. (Source: Lewis, 1982)

Give a two-hour rather than a three-hour final exam and use the last hour for makeup tests. By administering makeup tests during the time block reserved for the final exam, you can avoid the complexities of special scheduling.

Give an oral exam as a substitute. Oral exams are a practical alternative only in small classes and are more effective in advanced courses, where higher levels of learning can be assessed. Oral exams typically cover less material, but in more depth, than written exams.


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