Test anxiety can hurt test takers, sometimes literally. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America describes debilitating physical symptoms of test anxiety, ranging from headaches and excessive sweating, to shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, and light-headedness leading to full-blown panic attack. Nausea and gastrointestinal distress can also occur, which probably only exacerbates the emotional and cognitive toll. Clearly, test anxiety takes a toll on test performance… or does it?
Psychologist Sigmund Tobias explored this very idea in a 1990 research paper titled Test Anxiety: Cognitive Interference or Inadequate Preparation? In that paper, he sought to review the differences between two interpretations accounting for the poor test performance of highly anxious students.
The interference hypothesis asserts that test anxiety interferes with recall of prior learning in testing situations.
The deficit hypothesis theorizes that lower test scores obtained by test anxious students are attributable to inadequate study habits or deficient test taking skills.
Tobias explored the interactions of these hypotheses through his own research and that of others, concluding that they were “complementary rather than mutually exclusive formulations.” Both anxiety and academic preparedness affected test scores by impacting the cognitive capacity available for task solution:
The cognitive capacity formulation, then, suggests that test anxiety and both study and test taking skills have inverse, though complementary effects. That is, high test anxiety is expected to increase the demands made on cognitive capacity, whereas effective study or test taking skills are predicted to reduce the capacity demanded by tasks. Therefore, optimal performance can be expected of students with good study or test taking skills and low test anxiety since such students have the greatest proportion of their cognitive capacity available to cope with task demands. Students with high test anxiety and low skills, on the other hand, are in a situation where both the task and test anxiety make maximum demands on available cognitive capacity, leaving less capacity for dealing with the task.
Tobias also concluded that more focused research was necessary to all of the elements of anxiety, ability, preparation, and testing. One study that picks up this fascinating line of inquiry was released in 2018 by Jeffrey Steedle, a senior research scientist in Validity and Efficacy Research working with ACT, Inc. Steedle used ACT assessment data to test the interactions of the interference and deficit hypotheses. The description of this fascinating study–Does Test Anxiety Bias ACT Scores?–explains the methodology and complex statistical modeling involved, but the conclusion is simple enough: none of the interference effects were significantly different from zero; therefore, test anxiety does not bias ACT performance.
This strong endorsement of the deficit hypothesis seems to ignore what most people ardently believe, that test anxiety impairs performance. That observation still holds true, especially in the context of peak performance. However, most test anxiety stems, in my experience, from a lack of familiarity with test material and lack of confidence in one’s abilities. Proper test prep mitigates both concerns. Steedle’s research supports this idea, and his conclusion offers excellent guidance for any test taker, no matter how anxious: preparation is essential for minimizing anxiety and maximizing performance.