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Test anxiety may be linked to poor sleep and academic outcomes for college students, study finds

Experts hope these results highlight how common test anxiety is among college students

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Several recent studies have looked at the increasing prevalence of stress and anxiety among college students. Now, researchers from the University of Kansas explored a link between college students’ test anxiety, sleeping habits, and academic performance

According to their findings, all three of these factors are related. Many college students experience anxiety over big exams or projects. This anxiety often leads to poor sleep and worse academic performance. 

“We looked at test anxiety to determine whether that did predict who passed, and it was a predictor,” said researcher Nancy Hamilton. “It was a predictor even after controlling for students’ past performance and increased the likelihood of students failing in class. When you look at students who are especially anxious, it was almost a five-point difference in their score over students who had average levels of anxiety. This is not small potatoes. It’s the difference between a C-minus and a D. It’s the difference between B-plus and an A-minus. It’s real.” 

The long-term effects of test anxiety

The researchers had nearly 170 college students enrolled in a statistics class at the University of Kansas participate in the study. The students completed Sleep Mood Study Diaries in the days leading up to statistics exams, and the researchers compared those responses with the students’ exam scores. 

Ultimately, the link between test anxiety, sleep issues, and poor academic performance was strong. The researchers learned that those with the highest test anxiety in the days before an exam were also likely to have the worst sleep and then perform poorly on their exams. While this trend alone is concerning, the team was also worried about how these influences may impact students’ health and wellness outside of the classroom. 

“Studies have shown students tend to cope with anxiety through health behaviors,” Hamilton said. “Students may use more caffeine to combat sleep problems associated with anxiety, and caffeine can actually enhance sleep problems, specifically if you’re using caffeine in the afternoon or evening. Students sometimes self-medicate for anxiety by using alcohol or other sedating drugs. Those are things that we know are related.” 

What role can teachers play?

Though this trend primarily impacts college students, the researchers learned that it can also impact professors. Hamilton teaches at the University of Kansas and explained that her goal when giving tests is to measure how much her students are learning; however, if their scores are impacted by their anxiety and lack of sleep, that’s not an accurate measure of what they’re absorbing from her class. 

To help combat this issue and encourage health and wellness among college students, Hamilton recommends that universities take a more proactive approach to address test anxiety and the associated risk factors. 

“What would be really helpful for a university to do is to talk about testing anxiety and to talk about the fact that it’s very common and that there are things that can be done for students who have test anxiety,” Hamilton said. “A university can also talk to instructors about doing things that they can do to help minimize the effect of testing anxiety.” 

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