How Practice Quizzes Help with Test Anxiety

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, practice quizzes are 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 test, and Shanks and a team of four researchers wanted to find out whether practice quizzes exacerbate test anxiety. The team collected 24 studies that measured students’ test anxiety and found that, on average, practice 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 practice 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,” he said. “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.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

One Response to How Practice Quizzes Help with Test Anxiety

  1. Belinda Lovell says:

    As a retired educator, I absolutely agree with practice quizzes. I only wish I had done more of them. Belinda

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