The government took the next step in getting back to ‘normal’ in 2023, as students in England sat examinations subject to pre-pandemic assessment routines for the first time. In so doing, the government reaffirmed its focus on an arguably inflexible, terminal GCSE exam system of the pre-pandemic years. The pressures arising from this system have historically placed a mental and emotional burden on students, which has prompted a continual increase in the levels of test anxiety year after year (YoungMinds, 2017). As students across the UK receive their examination results this summer, and in the midst of celebrating success, we should also consider the prevalence of test anxiety and its detrimental effect on students and their ability to move on to the next stage of their lives.
My personal experience of test anxiety during my GCSEs, which resulted in an inability to sit my examinations and my leaving school without formal qualifications, motivated me in this research. It also motivates me in my current role as a Disability Advisor to be aware that there is no one-size-fits-all model of support. In September 2022, I undertook research which investigated secondary school teachers’ understanding of test anxiety, as experienced by students aged 14–16 years. Six teachers shared their experiences and insights through semi-structured interviews. These teachers worked in different schools in England and their teacher experience ranged from one to six years. Through the interviews, I explored the nature of test anxiety, teachers’ understanding of its causes, how it manifests in students, and its impact on academic performance.
Exploring test anxiety from a teacher-centred perspective highlighted how the situational constraints of the GCSE system affect teachers’ understanding of test anxiety. This system is fuelled by the government’s reiteration of the value of GCSE exams as the ‘best and fairest way for young people to show what they know and can do’ (Williamson, 2020). The relation between the government’s emphasis and school-based accountability practices has given rise to a GCSE system that is a significant source of anxiety for both students and teachers. An inevitable link exists between teaching and student wellbeing (Govorova et al., 2020), and policy initiatives in England require teachers to be increasingly multifaceted to support children’s mental and emotional health (Kidger et al., 2010).
‘Exploring test anxiety from a teacher-centred perspective highlighted how the situational constraints of the GCSE system affect teachers’ understanding of test anxiety.’
Consistent with Zeidner (1998), my research findings highlighted the participants’ lack of comprehensive understanding of test anxiety as a process that evolves over four distinct temporal phases – the anticipatory stage, the confrontation phase, the anticipation phase, and the outcome stage – of response to anxiety-evoking, evaluative stimuli. Participants’ definitions were limited to descriptions of test anxiety as being a fixed event that only occurs before exams, a phenomenon that can be experienced during the test, or in the period that proceeds it. This is significant since all six teachers acknowledged the expectation for them to assume responsibility for identifying test anxiety. Their lack of understanding could reflect their limited teaching experience, as all six participants acknowledged that their initial teacher training failed to prepare them to identify and work with test-anxious students.
From the outset of their careers, teachers need access to professional development that develops their understanding of, and confidence in, supporting students with test anxiety. Schools should provide teachers with easily accessible prevention and intervention programmes specific to students who experience or are at risk of experiencing test anxiety. This would ensure that, at the very least, support to reduce the impacts of experiencing test anxiety is systemic rather than an individual responsibility entrusted to teachers.
Even in the absence of wider support, teachers continue to be the forgotten health workforce. Through their ongoing relationships with students, teachers provide vital support across the spectrum of need.
Govorova, E., Benitez, I., & Muñiz, J. (2020). How schools affect student well-being: A cross-cultural approach in 35 OECD countries’. Frontiers in Psychology, 11(431), 1–14. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00431
Kidger, J., Gunnell, D., Biddle, L., Campbell, R., & Donovan, J. (2010). Part and parcel of teaching? Secondary school staff’s views on supporting student emotional health and well‐being. British Educational Research Journal, 36(6), 919–935. https://doi.org/10.1080/01411920903249308
Williamson, G. (2020, November 29). ‘Exams are the best and fairest way for young people to show what they know and can do’: The Education Secretary on the importance of exams. The Education Hub. https://educationhub.blog.gov.uk/2020/11/29/exams-are-the-best-and-fairest-way-for-young-people-to-show-what-they-know-and-can-do-the-education-secretary-on-the-importance-of-exams/
YoungMinds. (2017). Wise up to wellbeing in schools. https://policycommons.net/artifacts/1730645/wise-up/2462294/
Zeidner, M. (1998). Test anxiety: The state of the art. Kluwer Academic Publishers.