Terrified of Testing? Tackle It Through Testing!

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

Testing terrifies many students. We call this test anxiety. How can we best deal with this? MORE TESTING. You might think we’re crazy as it sounds contradictory… Fighting fear for tests by facing those fears through more testing?! Yet, it works. Retrieval practice (using ‘no-stakes’ practice tests) is the answer to help students get over their fear for testing.

It’s safe to assume that many students suffer because of all the tests they have to take. For example, on a Dutch website (scholieren.com), Chad van den Berg cited one of his fellow students, who stated: “At least three tests in one day is stressful, especially if they include two languages.” Or, the ‘Algemeen Dagblad’ (AD; a Dutch newspaper) on April 8, 2019 hit with the headline Schools draw the line under ‘out-of-control test culture’. The newspaper argues that schools see too many stressed out students who only come into action when their work is formally tested, resulting in an actual test score.

(Schools draw the line under ‘out-of-control test culture’)

Side note here: She and her followers are the same people who say that education should be more realistic. As far as we know, most of what we do is judged by others (e.g., our bosses, colleagues, HR people) in ‘real life’ and is carried out under time pressure. But why bother with a few logical inconsistencies when it comes to preaching one’s philosophy?

OK, so students are stressed and even terrified because of testing and this is particularly the case for arithmetic and maths. Jo Boaler, professor of Maths Education at Stanford University (who is seen by some as a prophet and by others as a fraud; see here and here for the ‘prophet side’ and here and here for the ‘fraud side’) doesn’t waste a single chance to explain how bad things are when it comes to fear for maths amongst children, not the least because of the tests they have to take. Even worse, they have to do so under time pressure! Imagine that.

So, what to do to? No one likes to feel anxious and the experienced anxiety or fear might influence results negatively. That, of course, isn’t the intention of testing. The intention should be to help students and their teachers figure out what they already know/are able to do versus where they might have some weak spots and/or need to learn or practice more.

Not so long ago, Pooja Agarwal and her colleagues (2014) published an article on how retrieval practice (we like to call this ‘no-stakes testing’) can help to decrease test anxiety and the stress that comes with it. Yep, you read that right: More testing in order to decrease the fear for testing. Really.

The question that the researchers asked was: Does retrieval practice influence the test anxiety of elementary and secondary school students? 1.408 students participated in the study. One group (the intervention group) completed various retrieval practice tests while the other group (the control group) didn’t. The researchers also asked students questions, such as “Do these practice tests cause you to experience anxiety?” or “Do these practice tests influence the amount of stress you experience for formal tests?” They also asked what kind of learning strategies the students used when studying at home, such as going through the content again or rereading what they had already read, using mnemonics, doing some type of self-assessment, etcetera.


In the ‘retrieval practice’ group, 92% of the students said that the practice tests helped them better learn the content. With respect to anxiety and stress, 72% said that they experienced less anxiety for formal tests and exams, 22% didn’t experience any difference, and only 6% felt that the practice tests led to more anxiety. So, interestingly, more retrieval practice – that is more no-stakes testing – resulted in less anxiety and fear for almost all students AND!

And, a nice little nugget – assuming that what students say is actually true – 70% of them say it prepares them better for formal tests as well!

However, let’s not cheer too soon. Despite the fact that students were really positive about the practice tests, they unfortunately didn’t embrace them as a learning strategy. This corresponds to Kim Dirkx’ research (2014) at the Open University in the Netherlands. When studying at home only 1/3 of the students stated that they created their own practice tests in some shape or form. The most frequently used strategies were ‘repeatedly going through content’ (45%) and ‘rehearsing facts’ (42%)

In a comparable study, Rachel Pizzie and David Kraemer (n.d) found that learning strategies, such as retrieval practice, spaced practice, and interleaving led to less anxiety for arithmetic and maths, as well as to better test results. These strategies turned out to be more successful in reducing anxiety than decreasing fear for the arithmetic and maths through emotion regulation.  

So, to sum it up, in light of the research discussed in this blog, it’s worth encouraging teachers to use retrieval practice in the form of no-stakes testing in their classrooms to decrease students’ feelings of terror when it comes to testing and to increase learning overall. In other words, when students are terrified of testing, tackle it through testing!


Agarwal, P. K., D’Antonio, L., Roediger, H. L., III, McDermott, K. B., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Classroom-based programs of retrieval practice reduce middle school and high school students’ test anxiety. Journal of Applied Research in Memory & Cognition, 3, 131–139. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jarmac.2014.07.002

Dirkx, K. J. H. (2014, 11 April). Putting the testing effect to the test. Why and when is testing effective for learning in secondary school. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Heerlen, The Netherlands: Open University of the Netherlands

Pizzie, R. G., & Kraemer, D. J. M. (submitted). Strategies for remediating anxiety in high school math. Beschikbaar via https://psyarxiv.com/ye526/

Interesting blog sites on retrieval practice: