During last week’s Mini-Fest we run a session entitled ‘Designing Anxiety-Free Assessments’. The session was based on A review of the literature concerning anxiety for educational assessments produced by Ofqual which outlines links between assessment anxiety, students’ performance, and mental health. It also offers possible assessment anxiety interventions which can be applied to both assessment design as well as its implementation.
Based on the review as well as discussions from the session we prepared a list of simple steps you can take to make assessments less anxiety-provoking for your students:
- Replace fear appeals with positive encouragement.
Fear appeals, messages emphasising the importance of upcoming assessments, have been shown to contribute to higher levels of test anxiety, lower-class engagement and lower task performance (Putwain & Best, 2011; Putwain, Nakhla, Liversidge, Nicholson, Porter & Reece, 2017; Putwain & Symes, 2014). Instead of motivating students using fear appeals, try rephrasing your messaging into positive encouragement.
- Help students set achievable goals.
In addition to providing students with information about how their final performance or paper should look like, it is worth adding some information on what steps they need to take to get there. Breaking assessments down into stages and suggesting approximately how much time they should spend on each part can be helpful to students, particularly those not experienced in managing university assessments.
- Facilitate a positive learning environment.
As described in the review ‘positive learning environments can include: designing lessons that focus and building upon students’ strengths and abilities rather than identifying weaknesses; giving positive and accurate feedback; encouraging cooperative rather than competitive peer relationships; and encouraging students to be intrinsically motivated to study, rather than being coercive or focusing on the instrumentality of assessment outcomes(Jennings & Greenberg, 2009 as cited in Ofqual, 2020). How can you foster these elements in your classroom?
- Modify the mode of assessment (if possible!).
Several specific assessment-design factors impact how anxiety-inducing they are. Making small adjustments to the assessment mode can make a difference to your students:
- Instrumentality (how much impact the assessment appears to have on students’ overall grade): Breaking down or spreading out complex and heavily weighted assessments into smaller chunks will help students with managing their time better and create less pressure on doing well.
- Complexity (how complicated the assessment seems to be): is there anything in the assessment design that could be simplified?
- Evaluation (whether their performance will be evaluated by others): where possible consider minimising the impact of the social evaluative aspect of assessments by limiting the audience size or allowing students to submit a pre-recorded presentation.
- Timing (whether their performance is timed): this one is applicable particularly in terms of exams which usually have strict time limits. It’s worth considering whether timed exams are the best way of measuring student progression on the learning outcome or whether there is an alternative assessment design you could use.
- Help students feel prepared.
Increasing feelings of preparedness can also help in reducing assessment anxiety. Some of the things you can do to help your students feel more prepared are:
- making assessment clear, detailed and accessible clear;
- tying assessments clearly and obviously to learning outcomes;
- linking skills they learnt throughout the module to those helping them in assessments;
- communicating expectations (e.g. how much time they should spend on an assessment) clearly and repeatedly.
Finally, perhaps the most effective way of making students feel more prepared and help them get used to being assessed are mock exams and other formative assessments (Ergene, 2011).
- Provide students with information about assessment anxiety & how to manage it.
Simply providing students with information about assessment anxiety being common among students and giving them links to some resources available to them (see below) can be helpful.
Supporting your Learning module available to all student via Blackboard offers all essential information on assessments including a short section on tackling assessment anxiety.
Quick Guide to Student Success is a good starting point for helping students to build academic skills such as managing their time, effective study strategies and the ability to motivate themselves.
AberSkills pages (accessible also via Blackboard) offer students support on various essential skills including academic writing, referencing or employability.
Student Well-being Resources provide students with various resources which can help them in building coping strategies.
Although it may not be possible to design assessments that are fully anxiety-free, taking some of these steps can have a positive impact on students’ performance and wellbeing.