Skip to main content

Accessibility menu

Skip to main content Skip to footer

Reduce test anxiety

A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Brief Description

Test anxiety is a significant problem that interferes with student performance. High-test anxious students underperform on tests and other types of performance measures. One representative study found that students in a college course who rated themselves as highly test anxious on an anxiety questionnaire, scored well below non-test anxious students on all three course exams (Cassidy citation). Some research shows that high test anxiety also interferes with students’ test preparation. That is, over anxious students may not study as effectively as their non-anxious peers. 


Expressive Writing Exercise. Teachers can improve students’ performance by using an expressive writing strategy to reduce the negative effects of test anxiety. Test anxious students who write about their test-related worries for a few minutes just before an examination perform closer to their actual potential—essentially eliminating the negative effects of anxiety (Beilock, 2010; Ramirez & Beilock, 2011).  

Why it works: Anxiety produces a number of psychological and physiological responses. When people are highly test anxious it is difficult to focus one’s attention on the task at hand. They have negative thoughts, e.g., “I can’t do this,” “I don’t know this,” “I’m going to fail this,” “If I fail this test, I’ll have to drop the course and that will put me behind,” etc. Essentially, working memory is cluttered with distracting thoughts. If you are preoccupied about doing poorly, you have no mental resources left over to think clearly about the subject matter and focus on the test. Writing about test-related worries just before an exam, has the effect of eliminating anxiety-induced thoughts from working memory. Students are then better able to work on the exam without being distracted by unwanted thoughts. 

Tips to Implement Reducing Test Anxiety Effectively

  • Administer the 27-item Cognitive Test Anxiety Scale to students at the start of the course. You can determine the number of high test anxious students in your class, and then track student test performance relative to their test anxiety level. 

  • Before each test administer the expressive writing exercise.
    (See instructions and prompt here).

  • Students should be told the exercise is anonymous [no names] and ungraded.

  • Collect the exercises before starting the exam.

  • Read students’ exercises if you want some insight into their test-related worries.


Cerbin, W. (2015). Reduce test anxiety. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from