Self-efficacy, test anxiety, and academic success

Can a student be so anxious that she can “psych herself out” when it comes to test performance? Can the perceived stakes be so high that no amount of test preparation could overcome the fear of failure? The interplay of the various components comprising these emotional patterns is the subject of a longitudinal study of college students undertaken by German researchers and published last month in the International Journal of Educational Research. Perhaps it’s not a one-to-one comparison, but given widespread concerns about test anxiety in the U.S. K-12 arena, perhaps this study offers some insight.

Researchers administered surveys to 92 students enrolled in a psychology course at the same university in Germany. These surveys were administered leading up to and after taking a required oral examination considered to be “one of the highest social evaluation stressors.” Surveys were administered again after students received their final grade for a total of three surveys. Their purpose was to gauge students’ academic self-efficacy (students’ beliefs regarding their ability to deal with high demands related to academic performance), their expected grade before the test, the relevance of success (how important it was to them to do well/pass), their received grade after the test, and their self-declared level of test anxiety (a “combination of worry- and emotionality-related adjectives”) at all three points. The various emotional and perceptual factors being studied here were correlated in a complex sequence. For example, researchers looked to see whether fear of failure was greater before taking the exam (when the student had some level of perceived control over the outcome) or after (when there was nothing to do but worry about the outcome), and correlated both with reported self-efficacy.

The findings, while limited by several factors, were interesting. Certain obvious correlations (students who viewed success on the test as more important were more likely to be anxious) were found to hold true, while certain surprises manifested as well. For instance, “text anxiety” levels were negatively correlated with final grade expected (anxiety affecting goals), although they were positively correlated with final grade received up to a point. Students who expressed more confidence in their ability to pass the test were more likely to pass than those with less confidence, but fear of failure was also positively correlated with test success, until the level of fear reached a “toxic” tipping point that began to inhibit success.

And therein lie some of the caveats. The fact that the students were all adults and likely had many high-stress test experiences under their belts likely influenced existing self-efficacy levels at least, if not other factors being measured. The small sample size, the dangers of self-reported data, and the focus on a single oral examination were also identified by the researchers as weaknesses in their study, which could be addressed in replication efforts.

So what might all this mean for those of us interested in American K-12 education? Boosting a child’s self-efficacy, helping her understand the true stakes of any given test, and minimizing her test anxiety are all the job of adults – teachers, counselors, principals, parents. Research such as this adds to the toolkits of adults tasked with the important job of supporting a student to her highest and best performance. Demonstration of ability – frequently under pressure of time or consequences—is unavoidable in adult life and the classroom is the perfect laboratory for children to learn to thrive in that world. Research such as this, replicated in an American K-12 setting, could provide invaluable tools in this important work.

Source: Julia Roick and Tobias Ringeisen, “Self-efficacy, test anxiety, and academic success: A longitudinal validation,” International Journal of Educational Research (March, 2017).

Jeff Murray
Jeff Murray is the Ohio Operations Manager of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,