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David Putwain
August 8, 2023
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Exploring test anxiety in schools

In conversation with David Putwain

What was your background prior to the creation of the multidimensional test anxiety scale?

My undergraduate degree is in psychology. I trained as a teacher and went on to work for 12 years in secondary schools and sixth forms teaching GCSE and A level psychology and sociology, GCSE child development and GNVQ health and social care. I then became involved in exam marking and became a principal examiner. This involved setting psychology exams, developing marking schemes and controlling the examiners. It was during this time I began to question what might be happening in the minds of the students who were taking the exams. This led me back to university where I studied a master’s in applied psychology, then a PhD. I focused on the experiences, motivations and emotions of the students doing their GCSE exams. I then began designing the multidimensional test anxiety scale in 2017.

Can you explain how your work came about, and what it aims to measure?

There were lots of existing anxiety scales – however I was dissatisfied with them, both in terms of the elements of anxiety they measured, and the language they used. Many of these scales were American, and the language they used didn’t always work for a UK cohort. An example of that is a question that appeared in one survey; “when I take tests’ I confuse myself”. It referred to the ‘brain going to jelly’ feeling some students experience when they’re taking exams, but many students would struggle to comprehend that. This can be simply rephrased as “I find it hard to concentrate”. Anxiety has many elements, including worrying about failure and the consequences of failure, interference with cognitive capacities (such as concentration, memory, and attention), feelings of panic and tension and physiological elements, e.g., elevated heart rate, wobbly legs, or butterflies in your stomach. An effective instrument would therefore need to cover all these bases. Lastly, there was only one set of established norms, which dated back to the 1980’s. I wanted to create a UK scale which used correct language and mapped the elements of anxiety I considered most important.

I began designing the scale by taking every item from existing questionnaires, removing any duplicates, and sending them on to a pool of international experts who had been asked to participate. They were then asked to rate the existing questions with regards to effectiveness in measuring test anxiety. They were shown our proposed structure, and we boiled down our list of questions to around 40. This was piloted to 2,500 students. After receiving their feedback, the scale was condensed to 16 questions, which were then piloted to 6,000 students to confirm it could predict wellbeing. High anxiety predicts issues with wellbeing, mental health risks and poor exam results. The project took around 3 years from beginning to end. Thank you to the British Academy, who funded this research!

How would a school use the scale and what value would they get from it?

The intention is that the scale can be used to identify students who consistently experience exam anxiety, not those who may feel it as a one off. It can be used across a cohort to gain a snapshot view of test anxiety, or as a screening tool to identify students who may need more support and intervention. It can then be used to track the effectiveness of these interventions by continuous use. Rightly or wrongly, anxiety has not been a priority until recently. 17 years ago, no policy makers or schools took it very seriously. In the last 5-10 years that has changed, as mental health has become more important, especially as changes have been made to assessment structures in schools. Schools are now more interested in helping their students with regards to wellbeing and have tried different methods of relieving stress. Some schools even do pet therapy! These things are great as they provide a temporary break from stress – but it is only temporary. It is crucial to get to the root cause and tackle the underlying reasons for anxiety.

How does working with BounceTogether help you develop your research?

We know there are large gender differences in exam anxiety, as it is much more prevalent in female students. However, not much is known about the differences in other demographics. To have such a large data set to examine more fine grain differences is so important, as it isn’t always as simple as “this ethnicity” or “this postcode”, but rather the intersection of these differences. Sometimes large data sets are needed to tease this out and identify subgroups. We also know that high levels of exam anxiety are related to self-esteem, so studying test anxiety against the scales that measure self-esteem are of interest to me.

Why does this work matter to you?

It’s always really nice as an academic when your paper is published. Your colleagues have reviewed your work anonymously and consider it good enough to be in the public domain. But really the best part is when students say to you “I thought I was the only one going through this!”. The tangible relief they feel when they realise that they aren’t the only one experiencing these feelings. That to me is what makes it worthwhile.

I’d also like to take the time to thank my American collaborator, Nathaniel von der Embse from the University of South Florida, my research assistant Emma Raybird, and all the schools who participated in the pilots of this study.


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