Two Responses To My Test Anxiety Article

In the February 11 issue of Time magazine, I have an article about new research on test anxiety and how to quell it (you can read excerpts here). I want to share with you two interesting responses to the article. The first, from a reader who wishes to remain anonymous, wonders if anxiety can sometimes be a good thing:

“My husband and I had a lively debate at dinner last night after I told him about your piece on eliminating test anxiety. Both he and I suffer from text anxiety and yet we are both excellent testers. I even see early signs of test anxiety in my daughter, who is also proving to perform well under pressure. I wonder if test anxiety is an essential ingredient to test success. If I didn’t have it, the adrenaline might not course through my blood in the same way. I fear if I meditated prior to an exam, my score would fall.

I wonder if there’s a difference in the psychology of a person who becomes overwhelmed, paralyzed and incapacitated when confronted with anxiety? Of course, these people should try to eliminate text anxiety. But perhaps not everyone should.

It would be interesting to learn if high scoring testers, say, those who score more than two standard deviations to the right, tend to feel higher levels of anxiety than, say, people in the middle of the bell curve.

(My husband argued that anxiety is actually a vague term and people mean different things by it. He suspects the productive test anxiety that we feel is a completely different beast than the anxiety that paralyzes. He and I have never experienced it and so we don’t know what that feels like).”

The second response is from reader James Babashak, a doctor and military veteran who sees anxiety as a sign of weakness:

“I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article “Relax, It’s Only A Test” about relieving student test anxiety and improving grades. However, I wonder if any of the techniques touted in the article make any long term difference in what academic success or careers these students would attain. They may feel better about test taking, but I still wouldn’t want them in important jobs when they get older.

Call me ‘old school,’ but in my academic, military, and medical careers, those students who knew the material best usually crushed the tests and always were ranked at the top of the group. How about learning the material better than anyone else, so that there is no anxiety?

A lot of these things [you mention]—’diminished self-esteem,’ ‘stereotype threat’—smack of the ‘everyone deserves a first place trophy just for showing up’ mentality that pervades American culture these days.

I really doubt these techniques will help these students once they are in the real world, where results matter to the company, the boss, the family, and the person’s own life. In the operating room, would you rather have a surgeon or anesthesiologist who was given special help to overcome test anxiety, or one that had been an academic superstar without a crutch? Pilot? Air traffic controller? Police officer? Soldier? Ship captain?

Where seconds matter and anxiety is part of the job, I doubt these people would last. There are many jobs where split-second decisions are done with anxiety and processing numerous variables in seconds, yet the people in these jobs make them every day without thinking about ‘evaluation anxiety.’

Honestly, do you think the millions of Indian, Chinese, and South Korean students who do better at all academic subjects than Americans worry about ‘test anxiety’? No, they do what us ‘old-fashioned’ (I’m 41) Americans do: they study until they know they are going to ace the exam.  Their only anxiety is that someone else would have studied even harder and will have a higher class rank!

Using the simple and old school ethic of studying for subject mastery, all achievers in the U.S. do well across many fields and across all ethnicities.  It is not hard, it just takes time and effort (and no hours on TV, X-Box, Twitter, Facebook, etc.).

Test-taking weeds out those who could not succeed in certain jobs, and I am glad for it.  Otherwise, I’d have to worry about my co-workers besides worrying about the patient on the operating room table.”

Readers, what do you think? Can test anxiety actually boost performance (when it doesn’t incapacitate)? And on the other side of things, does anxiety indicate that a test-taker hasn’t adequately prepared or isn’t up to the job? Please share your thoughts.

2 Responses to “Two Responses To My Test Anxiety Article”

  1. Karen Amador says:

    I enjoyed your article and shared it with my husband, suggesting that we employ the strategy of telling our soon to be SAT taking daughter that her anxiety could actually help her perform better. I wonder though, about differences in the anxiety of SAT, GRE, or second grade Stanford test takers and those who spend entire school years building up to that test, upon which they, possibly their teachers and the value of the real estate in their neighborhood will be judged. It seems that the more aware children might feel this burden a little more, and suffer more anxiety. There are no easy answers I’m sure, but I do think that the high stakes assessments currently used in many states may have their own anxiety dynamic. Thanks for continuing to ask the questions.

    PS After reading your article on the effect of AP calculus personal info being acquired at the end of testing, rather than the beginning, I wondered if any move was being made to implement this.

  2. Loren D. says:

    Regarding the question above, can test anxiety boost performance when it doesn’t incapacitate, the answer is sometimes. When the stress response “kicks in” it is usually at the expense of executive functioning. Meaning, many if not most of the functions needed to respond to test questions (decision-making, problem-solving, attention, working memory, etc.) are not available. However, a little bit of stress can work in one’s favor. When we get stressed, glucocorticoids are released in the brain. Small amounts can actually increase focus and attention, perhaps enhancing one’s decision making, and thereby being helpful to test performance. It’s the chronicity of the stress response that can be problematic.

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