Test anxiety is a psychological condition in which a person experiences distress before, during, or after an exam or other assessment to such an extent that this anxiety causes poor performance or interferes with normal learning.
Test anxiety can develop for a number of reasons. There may be some prior negative experience with test taking that serves as the activating event. Students who have experienced, or have a fear of, blanking out on tests or the inability to perform in testing situations can develop anticipatory anxiety. Worrying about how anxiety will effect you can be as debilitating as the anxiety itself. This kind of anxiety can build as the testing situation approaches, and can interfere with the student's ability to prepare adequately. Lack of preparation is another factor that can contribute to test anxiety. Poor time management, poor study habits, and lack of organization can lead to a student feeling overwhelmed. Students who are forced to cram at the last minute will feel less confident about the material covered than those who have been able to follow a structured plan for studying. Being able to anticipate what the exam will cover, and knowing all the information has been covered during the study sessions, can help students to enter the testing situation with a more positive attitude. Test anxiety can also develop genetically.
Lack of confidence, fear of failure, and other negative thought processes may also contribute to test anxiety. The pressure to perform well on exams is a great motivator unless it is so extreme that it becomes irrational. Perfectionism and feelings of unworthiness provide unreasonable goals to achieve through testing situations. When a student's self-esteem is too closely tied to the outcome of any one academic task, the results can be devastating. In these situations, students may spend more time focusing on the negative consequences of failure, than preparing to succeed.
Test anxiety prevents students from demonstrating their knowledge on examinations. To be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, test anxiety must pass two legal tests. First, it must be a "mental impairment." As a form of Social Phobia, a mental disorder included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it meets this first test. Second, it must "substantially limit one or more of the major life activities." Individuals for whom test anxiety is one manifestation of Social Phobia-Generalized are substantially limited in the major life activities of interacting with others and working. Individuals for whom test anxiety is the only manifestation of their Social Phobia are substantially limited in the major life activities of thinking and working, the latter because they are excluded from any career requiring a test for application, credentialing, licensure, or training. Accommodations may include taking the test in a separate room or taking an untimed examination. Documentation supporting a diagnosis of test anxiety should include evidence of significant impairment in test performance.