Sometimes it takes a challenge to bring out the best in us.
When Serena Williams stepped onto court at the 2017 Australian Open, she knew that victory would see her surpass Stephie Graff’s long-standing record of 22 grand slam titles. In a white-dominated sport, such an achievement by a black athlete would signal a major triumph for talent and hard work, a showcase for the power of the individual to rise above others’ expectations of them.
Bearing the pressure of this, and battling the brutal heat of the Australian summer, Williams breezed through the tournament, brushing aside rivals without losing a single set.
Of course, great athletes are highly adept at channeling the nervous energy that such pressure generates. They spend years learning to use the body’s flight or fight response to their advantage.
However natural this response is, it’s not nearly as effective when it comes to improving learning or academic performance. In fact, research suggests that the opposite is more likely to be the case.
When stressed, the brain’s prefrontal cortex fails to suppress the amygdala, which causes the body to enter its fight or flight mode. As a result, automatic activity takes over – sensory-perceptual processing increases, adrenaline levels rise, heartbeat quickens, and additional blood and oxygen are pumped into the muscles, priming them for action.
For students though, sweaty palms and dry mouths are the least of it.
The fear of negative evaluation and it’s knock-on consequences for one’s self-esteem can be crippling for high school students, particularly taking into account the emotional topsy-turviness during one’s adolescent years.
Researchers in Britain have actually identified four root causes of test anxiety in GCSE students:
These anxieties are not location specific. They can equally be applied to students who are sitting standardized tests in the US, as well as to undergraduate students who may additionally worry about the high costs of failure given the exorbitant fees associated with third-level education.
Indeed, the pervasiveness and effect of test anxiety among students are significant enough to warrant inclusion on the official website of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
While researchers believe that anxiety can be facilitative at low levels, at higher levels it becomes debilitating.
The pressure-cooker atmosphere of summative or end-of-year testing makes it incredibly difficult for students to focus their thoughts. The physiological effects and cognitive load of a test environment effectively scramble the brain, making it harder to retrieve important information when it counts.
Many students will be all too familiar with this unpleasant sensation, frustrated that their “brain just went blank” despite knowing that they knew the answers to what they were asked.
But test anxiety doesn’t necessarily begin in the test center. In reality, the momentum builds for months (or longer) beforehand, influencing one’s entire learning approach, as well as one’s capacity to absorb information.The physiological effects and cognitive load of a test environment effectively scramble the brain, making it harder to retrieve important information when it counts. Click To Tweet
According to clinical psychologist Dr Angharad Rudkin, the looming pressures of big tests are such that “Even if you manage to take in what is being said, the information is likely to bounce around [in your brain], not being processed properly or stored in your long-term memory.”
In addition to affecting a student’s ability to memorize information, anxiety can also interfere with actually understanding the material at hand. As the authors of 2005 study reveal: “…students with high levels of cognitive test anxiety tend to procrastinate, worry over potential failure, utilize ineffective study strategies, and demonstrate insufficient cognitive processing skills to gain effective conceptual understanding for the content…”.
Part of the problem lies we how we think about testing. Instead of approaching tests like some end-of-level boss from a video game, they should be viewed as a vital part of the overall learning cycle. The fact that taking practice tests is a widely recommended coping mechanism just proves the point: frequent interactions reduce the perceived “threat” of tests and employ them as a means of achieving material mastery.Instead of approaching tests like some end-of-level boss from a video game, they should be viewed as a vital part of the overall learning cycle. Click To Tweet
For many commentators, technology will be the game-changer in overcoming test anxiety. It may even help eliminate end-of-year exams altogether.
Such is the thinking of Simon Lebus, CEO of Cambridge Assessment.
“The interesting thing is that the technology exists now – the data-processing power and so on, conceptually at least – to allow learning material to be delivered on an ongoing basis in classrooms through technology,” he said in an interview with TES.
“You could actually see technology and evidence-gathering during the course of learning eventually displacing the need for final terminal exams.”
It’s natural to meet such claims with a healthy dose of cynicism, but there is evidence to support the advantages of using technology to make continuous assessment part of an effective learning strategy.
In the study from 2005 mentioned above, researchers took two control groups of undergraduate psychology students, administering a series if in-class tests to one group while allowing the other to take the same tests online.
By the end of the study, the researchers concluded that online testing reduced test “threat” while increasing time spent on class instruction and reflection. It also afforded greater student access, flexibility, and offered instant feedback on incorrect and correct answers, thereby “promoting the user’s ability to modify existing cognitive structures and retrieval cues.”
Students in similar studies elsewhere have also reported they felt online tests were unbiased, fair, and less intimidating than conventional tests.
Perhaps the most noteworthy characteristic of technology is that it’s always changing, and quickly.
In the decade and more since the studies above were published, technology has increased in terms of access, scope, and capability.
For instance, it’s now possible to not only easily integrate interactive tests with relevant learning material, but to make it all readily available for students to practice on their own terms.It’s now possible to not only easily integrate interactive tests with relevant learning material, but to make it all readily available for students to practice on their own terms. Click To Tweet
Though it’s pretty easy to imagine a future in which tests act as means rather than as ends, it’s not quite as easy to imagine when that future might be. The idea of a single test acting as a touchpoint for evaluation seems out of place even today, given that it’s already possible to create myriad low-threat touchpoints that are more engaging and better integrated with student’s natural learning cycles.
Even though the timeline for change is uncertain, the need for it surely isn’t. Millions of learners today are already using technology, and future generations will, as digital natives, be expert navigators. If education is to be effective at nurturing their abilities, it must make the decision to align with their expectations too.