A Silent Academic Killer: Test Anxiety

By Anna Birk

Image retrieved from the Clipart Library

Finals week: a phrase that strikes fear into the hearts of college students everywhere..  what makes this week so feared? Why do students dread taking tests, rather than embracing their knowledge? 

For freshman student, Austin Wilson, taking a test is concurrent with a ride at an amusement park.

 “It’s kind of like a rollercoaster and your brain doesn’t process what is happening. You just have to keep going through,” Wilson said about his testing experience.

Wilson is currently enrolled at Ohio University as a double major in Sports Management and Marketing. Wilson remarked on a typical test taking experience, including that he often experiences panic, rapid heartbeat and sweaty palms. 

Panic and fear are common symptoms of  the test taking process. These symptoms are normalized, however, and are actually referred to as test anxiety. 

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, test anxiety is synonymous with performance anxiety and can include physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms.  

Kate Hibbard-Gibbons, a psychologist at Hudson Health Center for Ohio University, agreed with  the ADAA and stated that test anxiety is a strong emotional and physical experience. 

“Emotionally, a person with test anxiety will experience a great deal of fear and panic. This can include racing and negative thoughts about themselves and the world around, an upset stomach, sweating and difficulty concentrating,” Hibbard-Gibbons said. 

Kate Hibbard-Gibbons received her doctoral degree in counseling psychology from the University of Dayton. Her role at Hudson Health Center is a Generalist, meaning she is qualified to provide service to anyone who sees her. In regards to test anxiety, Hibbard-Gibbons wants people to realize that test anxiety can show up at any time, in many forms. 

  “Test anxiety can show up at any point in time of the testing process, whether that be the week before, the day of, or the night before,” Hibbard-Gibbons said. “It is also seen when studying, or more importantly, procrastinating. [For some], the testing anxiety is so [prevalent] that it is easier to not face it at all, and instead, procrastinate.”

Procrastination often does not cross the mind when the term “test anxiety” is used. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America lists it as a leading cause of test anxiety. The lack of preparation by students, due to their anxiety, can leave them feeling unprepared and overwhelmed. Once in the testing room, students can experience feelings of disappointment and as if they are not good enough. 

Kamryn Woodward, a pre-nursing freshman at Ohio University, can attest to having negative thoughts during a test. 

“[My feelings] are rarely fear of failure. They are more-so a fear of disappointing my professors,” Woodward reflected. “I’ll try to walk in [to the test] with a positive attitude but sometimes I wonder ‘what if my best isn’t good enough?’ My heart then starts to race and I wonder if my best really is good enough.” 

Once the test is over, Woodward often finds herself panicking once again. Sydney Mackesy has experienced much of the same. 

“When I was younger I used to have panic attacks before any quizzes or tests. It didn’t matter which one, either way, I would freak out. It evolved to a point where, [instead], my mind would blank. Now, the panic usually follows after the test is finished,” Mackesy said. 

The comments made by Mackesy, a double major in history and classical civilizations at Ohio University, pose an alarming question: How early into their education do students experience test anxiety? 

In order to tackle this question head on, Patricia Lowe completed a detailed study looking specifically at test anxiety in elementary students. 

Lowe, Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Kansas, published her study, Expression and Level of Test Anxiety in a Sample of Elementary Students, in February 2019. Using over a thousand elementary participants in her study, Lowe found that symptoms of test anxiety were seen in students in second through fifth grade. Specifically, students in grades four and five experienced more, “worry symptoms” than students in grades two and three.

Professor Lowe’s findings are astonishing; if students display test anxiety at such a young age, how can it be combated when they reach a collegiate level? Students brush their panic off, attributing it to a normalized testing experience. Others may try strategies such as deep breathing and refocus.  Hibbard-Gibbons, however, warns against using deep breathing to cope, unless it is repeatedly practiced. 

“Deep breathing can be helpful, but needs to be practiced all the time,” Hibbard-Gibbons said. “It won’t be as effective if it’s a one time thing; the body is not used to it because the brain is not used to associating deep breaths with calming down.”

Instead, she suggested that students develop good study habits and practice a pre-test routine. 

“Like athletes with a pregame routine, the same thing goes with tests. Students need to adopt a structured routine that they can depend on.” 

Other suggestions made by  Hibbard-Gibbons include eating a good breakfast and getting a healthy amount of sleep before a test.  Hibbard-Gibbons also recommended mimicking the testing environment when studying. For example, if a test will take place in a quiet space, it is important to study in a quiet location, such as the library. The brain will associate the two, and it can be helpful when the time to take the test comes along. 

As for resources at Ohio University, a new Coping Clinic is being offered this year to students, free of charge. The clinics are offered at Lindley Hall and Hudson Health Center at various times throughout the week and offer practical skills to help students manage their life. 

“The workshops are tailored to addressing any form of anxiety (academic, social, test, etc.) and they teach practical skills around that. You don’t have to share personal details about yourself, it’s just a workshop and students only go to learn,” Hibbard-Gibbons said. 

Image retrieved from Ohio University WellTrack website

If students are unable to attend a workshop, there are online options to help cope with test anxiety at well.

“WellTrack, an app that is supported by OU, has great modules that teach people about anxiety. It teaches strategies to cope and you can work through it at your own pace,” Hibbard-Gibbons shared.

As finals season approaches, Kate Hibbard-Gibbons encourages students to keep their mental health in mind. A trip to a counselor should never be taboo.

“Everything is worthy of counseling,” Hibbard-Gibbons said.

The Athens Effect Note: Hudson Health Center offers walk-in sessions daily and can be reached at their website or by phone at 740-592-7100.  

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