There is a common misconception that test anxiety only occurs during or shortly before an exam. In fact, this misconception is so common that little research has been done to examine the course of test anxiety for longer than a month before an exam. To address this gap, researchers Christin Lotz and Jörn R. Sparfeldt examined 192 college students’ self-reported test anxiety over the course of a three- to four-month semester. The researchers analyzed their test anxiety at four points1:
1) during the first class session of the semester
2) right before completing an ungraded mock exam of a mandatory school final exam, halfway through the semester
3) during the last class session of the semester
4) right before the mandatory school final exam, one week after the last lecture
Timing Test Anxiety
The researchers found that test anxiety was not limited to the period right before an exam. In fact, the participants experienced moderate test anxiety about the final exam at the beginning of the semester, when it was still several months away. Additionally, there was no significant difference between test anxiety levels during the first and last classes of the semester. In other words, test anxiety did not increase over the semester, but rather stayed relatively stable throughout.1 Such findings indicate that test anxiety about an exam begins much earlier than previously assumed.
Further, the researchers found that test anxiety about the final exam did not decrease or change after taking the mock exam. This finding indicates that taking a low-stakes practice exam did not decrease test anxiety.
Lastly, they found that test anxiety increased right before the final exam. These results confirm previous research that indicates that test anxiety does increase right before an exam.2 However, test anxiety remained within moderate levels, indicating that it did not drastically increase right before the exam.
Beneficial Steps to Take
The study was not conducted on students with clinically significant test anxiety, and it does not account for socioeconomic or systemic barriers to education that affect test anxiety. But its findings do provide evidence that test anxiety is not only relevant immediately before or during an exam, but also throughout the school year. Thus, it may be beneficial to take steps to manage test anxiety early in the semester, rather than waiting until finals week.
Starting earlier will also allow for additional time to practice the skills necessary to manage test anxiety more frequently and in a variety of situations. This allows individuals to prepare for the increased anxiety come finals week.3
Finally, the study found that the low-stakes mock exam had no effect on test anxiety, so it is important to note that simply taking a practice exam may not be an effective way to decrease test anxiety. While practice exams certainly help with learning the exam material, but because there is little test anxiety about these exams, taking them does little to help manage test anxiety. Individuals with test anxiety may find greater help in utilizing cognitive restructuring and mindfulness, acceptance, and relaxation skills.4,5
1. Lotz, C., & Sparfeldt, J. (2016). Does test anxiety increase as the exam draws near? – Students’ state test anxiety recorded over the course of one semester. Personality and Individual Differences, 104, 397 – 400.
2. Dimitriev, D. A., Saperova, E. V., & Dimitriev, A. D. (2016). State anxiety and nonlinear dynamics of heart rate variability in students. PloS One, 11(1), e0146131.
3. Antony, M. M. & Roemer, L. (2011). Behavior therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
4. Ergene, T. (2003). Eﬀective interventions on test anxiety reduction. Sch. Psychol. Int, 24, 313–328.
5. Sapp, M. (2013). Test Anxiety. Applied Research, Assessment, and Treatment Interventions third ed. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
Carol S. Lee is a clinical psychology doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts Boston, with a background in psychology from the University of California San Diego. Her research with Dr. Sarah A. Hayes-Skelton focuses on understanding the effectiveness of anxiety disorder treatments, especially in the context of engaging in behavior despite fear or anxiety. Carol and Dr. Hayes-Skelton co-author articles for Anxiety.org, blending social and clinical psychology in their work.