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Understanding test anxiety

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: A levels and GCSEs, Exams

Test anxiety blog series: 1

Authors: Dr Rob Buck and Professor Kevin Woods

Tests and exams in school inform teachers, parents, and students themselves about their academic progress and potential future pathways. But like any situation in which a person’s performance is being evaluated, the outcomes may feel very significant. So exams have the potential to be stressful.

As with anything that may be personally important, it is perfectly normal to experience anxiety and, research shows, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It can help some students to focus beforehand, and then apply themselves during the exam itself.  However, for some students, these worries go beyond helpful focus, becoming a more pervasive anxiety that poses a threat to both their academic achievement and general wellbeing.

Experiencing test anxiety

‘Test anxiety’ was first recognised by psychologists in the 1950s, leading to a field of research attempting to define, explain and reduce it.

Psychologists describe test anxiety as having 2 aspects – cognitive and emotional. The cognitive part refers to negative thoughts. Some negative thoughts are about the test, such as ‘I can’t do maths, and I will fail.” Other thoughts, called test-irrelevant thoughts, are about what might happen before or after the test, such as ‘when I fail, everyone will laugh at me.’  The emotional part includes tension, and a sense of distress or unease, and physical symptoms, such as nausea and sweating.  Of these, negative thoughts and test irrelevant thinking have been shown to have the greatest impact on academic performance.

Test anxiety can vary between students, depending on differences in their general levels of anxiety, how they perceive their ability and previous exam experiences.  For some students, test anxiety is simply fear of the consequences of failure.  However, many others are more anxious about how others will the judge them. Some are unable to define their concerns, simply associating exams with a general sense of threat or dread.  Whatever a student’s concern, worries can occur far in advance of an exam, or may not present themselves until the day of the test itself.

Our research suggests that for some students worrying thoughts interfere with their attention, making them less able to efficiently ‘process’ the task in hand.  This can lead to poor revision, ‘going blank’ during the exam or being less able to recall, handle and organise content in their responses. Some of our current research aims to better understand students’ ‘attentional bias’ within examinations and assessment situations.

How prevalent is test anxiety?

A recent large-scale study of 14-16-year-olds in England found that 16.4% of students reported themselves to be highly ‘test anxious’, with female students (22.5%) reporting a significantly higher proportion than male students (10.3%).  This is similar to levels found in earlier studies for young people in England, and from studies from different countries around world (for example von der Embse, Barterian, & Segool, 2014).  If we consider that over 600,000 students sit their GCSE examinations each year, this would suggest that approximately 100,000 students may be experiencing high levels of test anxiety each year.  So, a better understanding of test anxiety, and finding ways to reduce its effects, has the potential to benefit a significant number of students.


Test anxiety has been a topic of academic research for over 60 years and there are now many individual and group-based interventions aimed to support students with high test anxiety and to reduce their negative feelings.  Our later blogs will address this. Highlighted by the media, help with test anxiety has emerged as a priority at government level, with a recent House of Commons Education and Health and Social Care Committee report (May 2018) recommending:

…the Government should gather independent evidence concerning the impact of exam pressure on young people’s mental health, and what steps might be considered to build resilience to cope with it. (p.12, point 31).

This recent wider interest in test anxiety is a positive step which has the potential to accelerate our understanding of test anxiety and development of helpful interventions.


If you would like to talk to Ofqual about any of the issues raised in this blog, please contact us at


Contributors to this blog series are:

Professor Kevin Woods (blog series co-ordinator)

Dr Cathy Atkinson

Kerry-Ann Brown

Dr Rob Buck

Dr Deborah Flitcroft

Dr Jo Greenwood

Amanda Hipkiss

Dr Abi James

Tamsin McCaldin

David Soares

Dr Beverley Tyrell

We are a group of researchers and practitioners working at, or in partnership with, The University of Manchester Institute of Education. We have professional backgrounds as school teachers and/ or educational psychologists working in secondary, primary and special schools. Our research and professional practice covers a range of learning and well-being issues, including those relating to school examinations and tests, such as examination stress, test anxiety, and access arrangements. We are pleased to be working with Ofqual to bring our understanding of these issues to a wider audience through a series of blogs to be published over the coming weeks. These blogs are written for teachers, parents, examinations officers, and older students. We hope you find them informative and helpful.

Recent projects:

Buck, R. (2018). An investigation of attentional bias in test anxiety. Manchester Institute of Education, The University of Manchester

Flitcroft & Woods (2014). The language Key Stage 4 teachers use prior to high stake exams and how this can be adapted to suit their students. DfE ITEP-funded through The University of Manchester.

Hipkiss, A. (2014). Management of GCSE access arrangements: utilizing student feedback and observational data. ESRC-funded CASE project through the North West Doctoral Training Partnership (NWDTP).

McCaldin, T. (2015). GCSE student experience across Key Stage 4. ESRC-funded through the North West Doctoral Training Partnership.

Some recent publications:

Buck, R. (2016). An ethical approach to anxiety manipulation in school-based research. Psychology of Education Review, 40(2), 10-16.

Atkinson, C., Thomas, G., Goodhall, N., Barker, L. Healey, I., Wilkinson, L. & Ogunmyiwa, J. (2019) Developing a student-led school mental health strategy. Pastoral Care in Education. doi: 10.1080/02643944.2019.1570545

Flitcroft, D., & Woods, K. (2018). What does research tell high school teachers about student motivation for test performance? Pastoral Care in Education, 36(2), 112-125.

Flitcroft, D., Woods, K., & Putwain (2017). Developing practice in preparing students for high-stakes examinations in English and Mathematics. Educational and Child Psychology, 34(3), 7-19.

Woods, K., James, A., & Hipkiss, A. (2018). Best practice in access arrangements made for England’s General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSEs): Where are we 10 years on? British Journal of Special Education, 45(3), 236-255.

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1 comment

  1. Comment by Ron Buck posted on

    Excellent piece of work that I found so interesting and informative.
    It’s good to know that over the years so many people have and are still striving to help our children/youth people to reach their full potential.