In education circles, it’s popular to rail against testing, especially timed exams. Tests are stressful and not the best way to measure knowledge, wrote Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in a Sept. 20, 2023 New York Times essay. “You wouldn’t want a surgeon who rushes through a craniectomy, or an accountant who dashes through your taxes.”
It’s tempting to agree. But there’s another side to the testing story, with a lot of evidence behind it.
Cognitive scientists argue that testing improves learning. They call it “practice retrieval” or “test-enhanced learning.” In layman’s language, that means that the brain learns new information and skills by being forced to recall them periodically. Remembering consolidates information and helps the brain form long-term memories. Of course, testing is not the only way to accomplish this, but it’s easy and efficient in a classroom.
Several meta-analyses, which summarize the evidence from many studies, have found higher achievement when students take quizzes instead of, say, reviewing notes or rereading a book chapter. “There’s decades and decades of research showing that taking practice tests will actually improve your learning,” said David Shanks, a professor of psychology and deputy dean of the Faculty of Brain Sciences at University College London.
Still, many students get overwhelmed during tests. Shanks and a team of four researchers wanted to find out whether quizzes exacerbate test anxiety. The team collected 24 studies that measured students’ test anxiety and found that, on average, practice tests and quizzes not only improved academic achievement, but also ended up reducing test anxiety. Their meta-analysis was published in Educational Psychology Review in August 2023.
Shanks says quizzes can be a “gentle” way to help students face challenges.
“It’s not like being thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool,” said Shanks. “It’s like being put very gently into the shallow end. And then the next time a little bit deeper, and then a little bit deeper. And so the possibility of becoming properly afraid just never arises.”
Why test anxiety diminishes is unclear. It could be because students are learning to tolerate testing conditions through repeated exposure, as Shanks described. Or it could be because quizzes are helping students master the material and perform better on the final exam. We tend to be less anxious about things we’re good at. Unfortunately, the underlying studies didn’t collect the data that could resolve this academic debate.
Shanks doesn’t think competency alone reduces test anxiety. “We know that many high achieving students get very anxious,” he said. “So it can’t just be that your anxiety goes down as your performance goes up.”
To minimize test anxiety, Shanks advises that practice tests be low stakes, either ungraded or ones that students can retake multiple times. He also suggests gamified quizzes to make tests more fun and entertaining.
Some of this advice is controversial. Many education experts argue against timed spelling tests or multiplication quizzes, but Shanks recommends both. “We would strongly speculate that there is both a learning benefit from those tests and a beneficial impact on anxiety,” he said.
Shanks said a lot more research is needed. Many of the 24 existing studies were small experiments and of uneven quality, and measuring test anxiety through surveys is an inexact science. The underlying studies covered a range of school subjects, from math and science to foreign languages, and took place in both classrooms and laboratory settings, studying students as young as third grade and as old as college. Nearly half the studies took place in the United States with the remainder in the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Nigeria, Iran, Brazil, the Netherlands, China, Singapore and Pakistan.
Shanks cautioned that this meta-analysis should not be seen as a “definitive” pronouncement that tests reduce anxiety, but rather as a summary of early research in a field that is still in its “infancy.” One big issue is that the studies measured average test anxiety for students. There may be a small minority of students who are particularly sensitive to test anxiety and who may be harmed by practice tests. These differences could be the subject of future research.
Another issue is the tradeoff between boosting achievement and reducing anxiety. The harder the practice test, the more beneficial it is for learning. But the lower the stakes for a quiz, the better it is for reducing anxiety.
Shanks dreams of finding a Goldilocks “sweet spot” where “the stakes are not so high that the test begins to provoke anxiety, but the stakes are just high enough to get the full benefit of the testing effect. We’re miles away from having firm answers to subtle questions like that.”
This story about test anxiety was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Proof Points and other Hechinger newsletters.