Rising to the Challenge

Rising to the Challenge: Understanding and Dealing with Test Anxiety

By: Heather Kretschmer

In the middle of a high-stakes speaking exam, the sixteen-year-old student, who had done well up to that point, suddenly faltered. She was visibly, desperately reaching for a vocabulary item in her memory bank. Not coming up with what she wanted to say, she panicked and burst into tears. Her exam partner gave her a sympathetic look and jumped in. He kept the conversation going until, about a minute later, she stopped crying and picked up the thread of the conversation.

School-leaving exams, expensive proficiency exams, final exams, midterms, graded presentations, take-home tests, term papers, you name it—just thinking about any flavor of assessment probably makes your heart start to race, your stomach clench, your hands tremble. You gotta perform, and your performance will be judged. Recently David Buck (2022), English professor at Howard Community College, asked students in his writing class what word(s) or feeling(s) immediately come to mind when they hear the phrase: “This will be graded.” Here are his students’ gut responses:

Screenshot of Mentimeter poll results, used with David Buck’s permission

“Stress” immediately pops out, but also “anxiety,” “panic,” “scared,” “dread,” and some whimsical ones like “my grade gonna cry.” Although it is normal to feel a little worried about assessment, for some students their emotions can be overwhelming and even debilitating. They may be concerned that low grades might interfere with future achievements, like being accepted to a good university or a prestigious graduate program. But what we mustn’t forget is that our students may also be afflicted by what Curtis Kelly (personal communication, October 9, 2022) has so aptly termed the “blight of youth”: young people’s raging need to believe in themselves, their vulnerability to outside assessment, their fear of reaping their peers’ rejection or their family’s disappointment. In their mind’s eye, the test or presentation becomes a make-or-break watershed moment. And when the stakes are so high, anxiety and stress can cause some students to perform below their actual ability level. They choke under pressure, like the teenage girl did in her speaking exam. While some people rise to meet the challenge in stress-inducing situations like tests or presentations, others have trouble getting off the ground. What’s going on in the brain and body?

Stress & anxiety: Related but distinct

First, it’s important to distinguish between stress and anxiety. We tend to use these words interchangeably in everyday conversation: “I feel stressed out,” “I feel anxious.” However, stress is your brain and body’s response to a challenge or danger. In contrast, anxiety is an emotion—it’s the nervousness, worry, and dread you feel when something bad might occur in the future but hasn’t yet come to pass. Although we commonly think that stress and anxiety are bad for us, in reality, both help us deal with difficult situations. Let’s look at each separately, starting with stress.

As Pieter Rossouw explains in the video, Stress and Your Brain (Purnell, 2016), three hormone-secreting glands in your body are key to your stress response: 1) the hypothalamus and 2) pituitary gland in your brain, and 3) your adrenal glands, located on top of your kidneys. This stress response is called the HPA axis.[1]

[1] Besides Pieter Ressouw’s video, What is the Stress Response? (MacLeod, 2010) and Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (Guy-Evans, 2021) are two good introductory guides to stress. For more information on stress and the foreign language classroom see our June 2021 Think Tank.

Fig. 1 Brain and adrenal gland (link) (used under license); Fig. 2 HPA axis (link) (used under license)

Here’s what happens. As information travels through our senses deep into our brain, the amygdala checks whether something from the environment is potentially dangerous. When the amygdala identifies danger, it passes this information to the hypothalamus, which initiates the stress response by producing corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). This stimulates the anterior pituitary gland, which in turn produces adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), a hormone that moves through the blood stream to the adrenal glands, the body’s “stress factories.” The adrenal glands produce hormones, including cortisol (CORT), which helps maintain steady blood sugar levels and cope with whatever is causing the stress.

Pieter Rossouw (Purnell, 2016) notes that a little stress is necessary for us to perform in stressful situations, but too much stress “shuts down the smart parts of the brain,” like the prefrontal cortex. Sian Beilock reiterates this point in her book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To (2010): when we experience stress, our prefrontal cortex “decouples” other brain parts, and our brain no longer works as a network (p. 153). We end up devoting a lot of working memory to dealing with the stress, leaving us with fewer mental resources to draw on for the task at hand, like a test or presentation. Later in this article, we’ll look at some real bugaboos that can trip our students up in performance situations, like stereotype threat. But for now, let’s turn our attention to anxiety.

As you’ll recall, anxiety is an emotion. It arises when we anticipate a future threat, and the body responds in a similar way as it does in the stress response. You feel restless and on edge, your heart rate speeds up, your muscles tense, you breathe faster. As Tracy Dennis-Tiwary remarks in her book, Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good For You (Even Though it Feels Bad) (2022), your body is signaling that there is something looming in the future that requires your attention (p. 31). When you feel anxious, your amygdala releases dopamine, whose job it is to transmit information to other parts of the brain. Dopamine is called the “feel-good hormone” because it is released when you anticipate something pleasurable or do something pleasurable. But it’s also released when anxiety prompts us to do something about what’s making us feel anxious (Dennis-Tiwary, 2022, pp. 36-7). So, you feel relief when you act on your feeling of anxiety.

In addition, when feeling anxious, your body increases its production of not only cortisol but also oxytocin, the “social bonding hormone.” Oxytocin prompts you to feel a need for people you care about. When more oxytocin is present in the blood, stress hormone levels fall and the amygdala becomes less active (Dennis-Tiwary, 2022, p. 42). So, connecting with other people is a very good way of alleviating anxiety. Simply being with other people, especially those we are close to, helps our brains cope with future threats (p. 44).

To interpret and act on anxiety effectively, Dennis-Tiwary (2022) offers readers three principles in the final chapter of her book. Since anxiety is giving us information about the future, we should listen to it. If we can’t figure out what we’re anxious about, we should set it aside for a while and then return to it later. Finally, if we know what is causing our anxiety, we should take purposeful action to reduce that anxiety.[2] Let’s unpack this with a concrete example. Imagine a student is feeling anxious. After reflecting on why she feels anxious, she realizes it’s due to a big research paper one of her teachers assigned today in class. To lessen her anxiety, she takes action—she draws up a writing plan, texts a friend to arrange a time to have a writing session together, and starts researching the topic. And already she’s likely feeling the positive effects of the dopamine hormones released by her amygdala.

[2] However, we need to be careful with these three principles. Dennis-Tiwary points out that people with obsessive compulsive disorder may feel initially better after carrying out their compulsions, but their anxiety will resurface. Giving in to compulsions is not helpful (pp. 199-200).

General teaching tips

What we end up doing to teach our students about stress and anxiety depends on their age and education level. General advice can be found on the Internet, for example:

It’s worthwhile to review resources on stress and anxiety to see whether you can improve on what you’re already doing to get your students ready for their assessments. Ken Purnell, of Central Queensland University in Australia, encourages teachers to teach students about stress (link). So, you might consider devoting a teaching unit to the topic of stress and anxiety at the beginning of the school year or semester and then revisiting this topic periodically. The unit could include listening and reading tasks similar to the types of activities Stephen M. Ryan describes in his November 2021 article.

The dangers of stereotype threat and worrying

So far, so good. But, alas—just providing our students with information about stress and anxiety isn’t the elixir vitae that will cure every student’s problems. There are other factors in the mix that can cause our students to do less than their best in performance situations. These include stereotype threat and worrying.

Picture a class of students sitting in their seats waiting for class to begin. They’re all nervous about a math test they’re about to take, but one of the boys lets his nerves get the better of him and makes a snide remark to the girl sitting next to him. He tells her girls can’t do math. However, this girl is good at math and plans on studying physics. Since the girl identifies with being female and math is important for her, she can’t stop thinking about the stereotype she was confronted with, and she becomes more worried about the test. The stereotype consumes her thoughts even while she’s taking the test, and she ends up doing worse than she would have had the boy not made his comment.

This classroom scene illustrates stereotype threat, which Josh Aronson defines as “the apprehension that human beings feel when confronted by a stereotype or individual identity that is unflattering or adds pressure to their performance” (n.d.). Stereotype threat is particularly likely to crop up in high-stakes testing situations and, unfortunately, just knowing about negative stereotypes about groups they belong to can cause people to choke when they’re under the gun (Beilock, 2010, pp. 117-118). Students who are particularly good at something and value that ability (like the girl valued her math skills) are especially affected by stereotype threat. Why? These students don’t want to reinforce stereotypes, so they are prone to worrying about stereotypes when under pressure. What can easily happen is this worry takes up these students’ working memory resources, meaning they have fewer mental resources available for completing test tasks (Beilock, 2010, p. 129).[3]

Although stereotype threat has lost some ground recently in studies that could not replicate it,[4] I think it’s still worthwhile to reflect on stereotypes common where we’re living and teaching. Do we hear people say, “boys are good at math and science, and girls are good at languages”? Have we internalized thoughts like “students from country/culture X are good at memorizing vocabulary but bad at speaking”? As Beilock points out in her TED Talk (2017), our environment affects how well we do under pressure: “Our parents, our teachers, our coaches, our bosses all influence whether or not we can put our best foot forward when it matters most.” As teachers, we can make a difference by examining stereotypes we have about our learners and challenge ourselves to reject these stereotypes. This means not only in our thoughts but also in the way we treat students, including taking appropriate action when we hear a student expressing prejudices against another group. Furthermore, in the weeks or months leading up to the exam or presentation we can help our students in the following ways: by doing mindfulness training, exposing students to mildly stressful situations, and having students write about stress.

[3] Regardless of whether or not we are under stereotype threat, dwelling on our worries can cause us to choke under pressure.

[4] For a good overview of the debate, listen to Stereothreat on Radiolab.

Quieting the mind with mindfulness training

One way to help students deal with worrisome thoughts about exams, term papers, or presentations in a constructive manner is to do mindfulness training. Mindfulness is being fully present in the moment, aware of our bodies and our surroundings, and accepting of our thoughts and feelings. When we quiet our minds and focus on the moment, we set aside our worries and are better able to put our worries into perspective afterwards. As a high school student comments in a video about mindfulness in the classroom, “when I was really stressing about stuff, when I took these mindful minutes, it’s like I’m going to be fine. I’m going to get through this.” This mirrors Beilock’s (2010) advice: “When a worrisome thought arises, you acknowledge it, name it (as if actually identifying it and writing it down), but then let go of it. You don’t attach any more brainpower to it” (p. 163). Taking a few minutes to focus on our breathing (e.g. box breathing) and on our immediate surroundings (e.g. five senses) are good ways of practicing mindfulness. Consider practicing regularly with your students and then, right before the exam or presentation, do a mindfulness exercise with them. This might help you steady your own nerves, too! Here are some resources to get started on mindfulness:

Simulating stress and writing about stress

Giving students opportunities to practice mindfulness is important preparation, and simulating performance conditions with mock tests or practice presentations is equally important. According to Sian Beilock (2010): “Even practicing under mild levels of stress can prevent people from falling victim to the dreaded choke when high levels of stress come around” (p. 34). For example, if your students will be giving graded presentations, you might have them prepare short practice presentations for homework and then present to a partner or small group in class. However, a word of caution is in order here. What is mildly stressful for one student may be terrifying for another. Consider making mildly stressful tasks like practice presentations optional. Alternatively, ask students for their ideas of what they find mildly stressful and then decide on several options for the class. Finally, you can have a discussion in class about how important it is to have practice in mildly stressful situations and encourage your students to practice on their own outside of class.

As a last tip, have your students get their thoughts down on paper. Students can do a short writing task some weeks before their presentation or exam, or even just 10 minutes beforehand. In a study looking at an intervention for high school students from low-income backgrounds taking high-stakes science exams, researchers found that a short writing task helped students let go of negative thoughts and focus on the exams (Rozek et al., 2019). Students were given one of two writing tasks. In the expressive writing task, they wrote about their thoughts and feelings about the test. In the stress reappraisal task, they read a text about stress and were asked to view their physical reactions to stress as beneficial for taking tests. Both tasks helped students do better on exams, especially students from low-income households (p. 1556). When students write down their worries, they reduce negative thoughts, meaning they have more working memory available for the test or presentation and are less likely to choke (pp. 159-160). In addition, when students view their body’s reaction to a stressful situation as the energy they need to get through the situation, this can help them see the stress response in a more positive light (Terada, 2019). Instead of seeing stress as a hindrance, students understand that their body’s stress response is a sign that their body is readying itself for a challenging situation.

Up, up and away

Help students rise to the challenge in stressful situations like tests, term papers, and presentations. Tears and brain fog may not be totally avoidable, but students will likely do better after learning about anxiety and the body’s stress response. Mindfulness training, mildly stressful practice opportunities, and writing tasks are all ways students can gear up for stressful academic tasks. Give your students the tools to soar far higher than you could have ever anticipated.


Heather Kretschmer has been teaching English for over 20 years, primarily in Germany. She earned degrees in German (BA & MA) and TESL (MA) from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Currently she has the privilege of working with Business English students at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany.

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