How Test Instructions Can Impact Test Anxiety

Most of us have taken some sort of psychological test at some point in our lives, such as intelligence tests, vocational tests, or measures of personality. These tests are important for sorting us into categories, making decisions about our lives, and determining the kind of help we may need. However, most of the tests we take occur in an educational context, in which we need to pass exams to progress in our classes. But what happens when our emotional state — anxiety in particular — influences our results? In this article, I will report the results of a study by Meijer et al. (2011).

Meijer and colleagues were interested in determining the effects that different kinds of instruction can have in primary school students about to take an intelligence test. For this purpose, they separated subjects into three groups, where each group received a different type of instruction: stressful instruction, reassuring instruction, and ambiguous instruction. Stressful instruction involved emphasizing the subject’s individual performance and ensuring them that their results would be of significance (“results will be used for reference to different streams in secondary school”). Reassuring instruction, on the other hand, consisted on telling the students that they were being tested “to find out whether the test is useful” and that their results were confidential and not consequential. Finally, the ambiguous instruction consisted of giving students stressful instruction before the test, and reassuring instruction at the beginning of the test.

The results of this experiment demonstrated, as one might expect, that stressful instruction produced higher levels of worry than reassuring instruction, with ambiguous instruction producing a moderate effect. As such, the authors concluded that type of instruction does have a significant impact on the children’s level of anxiety while taking the intelligence tests. However, this effect was found only at the beginning of testing, and it reduced with consecutive measurements.

The authors were also interested in whether test anxiety is more similar to state anxiety or trait anxiety. State anxiety refers to a person’s reaction in a particular situation. Thus, a very important, high-stakes testing situation is bound to induce anxiety in most people. Trait anxiety, on the other hand, is a person’s disposition to react anxiously. Accordingly, a person who scores high in trait anxiety will tend to have an anxious reaction to more situations than a person who scores low on this scale. Thus, is test anxiety a disposition, or the result of situational factors? The authors found that test anxiety was more stable across testing than state anxiety, which supports the hypothesis that test anxiety is stable characteristic of persons, rather than a state.

The results of this study are particularly relevant to countries where high-stake testing is common practice. It is important for educators, examiners, and educational institutions to take anxiety effects into account when administering tests, as stressful instruction is shown to increase the level of worry in students, and this anxiety can have negative effects on their performance.


Meijer, J., & Oostdam, R. (2011). Effects of instruction and stage-fright on intelligence testing. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 26(1), 143–161.

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