Test Anxiety

By Dr Tan Chee Soon
Psychology and Child & Human Development Academic Group, NIE, NTU
Published: 16 September 2022


What do we know about test anxiety amongst Singapore's students?

Anxiety is a physiological response to a threatening situation. Most of us may experience normal anxiety which may serve to motivate us and mobilize us to action – for example when we are trying to meet a deadline.  However, feelings of anxiety which arise from situations that do not pose a threat or is excessive or out of proportion beyond developmentally appropriate periods may result in anxiety disorders. 


In Singapore, the most common stressors faced by those in the 10 to 19 age group were mental health issues, academic stress, and interpersonal issues with their family and friends (Samaritans of Singapore, 2016; Menon & Abdullah, 2022).  The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenges faced by youths in this age group who also experience social isolation and financial stress during this period (Menon & Abdullah, 2022). 


Social stressors experienced by Singaporean youth come in different forms.  The lack of connection with family members was reported as a stressor among adolescents who sought help from the Samarians of Singapore suicide prevention hotline (Samaritans of Singapore, 2016).  Peers are another source of stress. A study by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (OECD, 2017) reported that 18.3 per cent of students in Singapore reported being made fun of at least a few times a month while the OECD average was 10.9 per cent.  The use of social media has also been shown to affect social anxiety (Jiang & Ngien, 2020). 


However, a review of the literature revealed that when it comes to research on anxiety in Singapore, researchers have primarily focused in the area of academic stress and more specifically, test anxiety.  This is not surprising given the fact that Singapore students face a highly stressful and competitive educational environment (Ang & Huan, 2006; Poh, 2018).  The results of the PISA study (OECD, 2017) showed that significantly greater proportion (86 per cent) of students in Singapore were worried about poor grades at school, compared to an average of 66 per cent across OECD countries.  Hence, we will focus on test anxiety in the next section. 


Overview of Test Anxiety

Test anxiety is a psychological condition in which a person experiences distress before, during, or after testing situations (Mashayekha & Hashemi, 2011).  With test anxiety, students experience physiological, emotional, behavioural and cognitive symptoms that can have debilitating effects on their academic performance (Chapell et al., 2005; Keogh et al., 2004).


Test anxiety is composed of two dimensions: an affective domain labelled as ‘emotionality’ and a cognitive dimension labelled as ‘worry’ (Spielberger, 1980). 

  • Emotionality refers to the physiological manifestations such as increased heart rate, nausea or feeling of panic. 
  • Worry is composed of students’ cognitive reactions or internal dialogue before, during and after evaluative situations.  These anxious thoughts centre on (a) comparing self to peers, (b) feeling unprepared for a test, (c) low levels of confidence in performance, and (d) considering the consequences of failure such as disappointing their parents (Deffenbacher, 1980; Depreeuw, 1984; Hembree, 1988; Morris et al., 1981). 


Test anxiety is also associated with a tendency to avoid coping with problems (Blankstein et al., 1992) and low confidence in problem solving (Parkinson & Creswell, 2011).  A study found that when a task made high demands on the working memory (e.g. one involving memory recall), children with high levels of test anxiety were less accurate because they did not have sufficient working memory to handle the task demands (Ng & Lee, 2015).  This is because these highly anxious students would have expended some of their working memory resources on worrying. 


The Singapore Context

Academic stress among Singapore students


Singapore students are under pressure due to a competitive educational system, parent and expectations as well as the high premium placed on academic success by the society (Ang et al., 2009). A survey conducted with youth found that the majority of young people ranked education as the most stressful aspect of their lives (Ho & Yip, 2003). 


Academic stress experienced by adolescents arose from their own expectations to excel as well as those from their parents and teachers (Huan et al., 2008).   According to a study that compared Singapore adolescents with Canadian adolescents, Singaporean adolescents reported significantly higher level of academic stress arising from self and others (Ang et al., 2009). Similar findings were found in a study when older students (between 18 and 26 years) in Singapore were compared with their peers in the US (Lowe, 2021).  The higher levels of social concerns among students in Singapore were attributed to their concern about the reactions of significant others if they do not perform well on tests.


Singapore youth overwhelmingly ranked examination grades as the most important aspect of school life (Ho & Yip, 2003) and were anxious about doing well in school.  According to the results of the PISA (OECD, 2017), 76 percent of the participating students in Singapore reported feeling very anxious for a test even if they were well prepared, compared with the OECD average of 55 percent. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, academic stress was the primary concern among Singapore students.   In one study (Tan et al., 2022), 90% of secondary school students reported stressful experiences related to their academic work.  This is compared to 37% of students in the sample who described socially related stressful experiences. The study also found that the pandemic has exacerbated the stress experienced by these students who found online learning challenging and ineffective, resulting in anxiety about their examinations.


Academic stress is associated with succeeding in school and getting a job that pays well and has high status (Ho & Yip, 2003; Isralowitz & Ong, 1990).  This perception regarding the relationship between academic achievement and future success is supported by the results of the PISA test conducted by OECD (2019) where Singapore had the highest percentage of students among the participating countries who agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “When I am failing, this makes me doubt my plans for the future”.


Coping with anxiety and stress


Despite experiencing stress during the pandemic, students in Singapore demonstrated resilience and cope with their stress by using different strategies (Tan et al., 2022). 

  • Some students identified their stressors and took active steps to address the effects of these stressors.
  • Seeking help from peers, parents and teachers was also important in helping students deal with stress.
  • Behaviour strategies involving making plans to revise early, being organized and having a schedule also helped students to alleviate their stress. 


Having a stress-is-enhancing mindset is an important protective factor during the pandemic (Caleon et al, forthcoming).  If a student adopts a stress-is-enhancing mindset, he or she is more motivated to accept the stressful situation and work towards the desired outcome. Such a mindset is associated with being more adaptive and the ability to cope better, resulting in better performance (Casper et al., 2017).  The results of a study involving secondary school students in Singapore found that the stronger students subscribed to the belief that stress has enhancing effects, the lower was their self-reported depressive symptoms and the higher was their life satisfaction (Caleon et al, forthcoming).  The relationship between a stress-is-enhancing mindset with depressive symptoms and life satisfaction is mediated by engagement coping strategies. 


In Practice

Both cognitive and behavioural approaches, especially when combined with test taking skills, have been found to be effective in reducing test anxiety (Ergene, 2003).  


  • A study that examined the effect of an intervention where Primary 5 students in Singapore were taught to take deep breaths before a Mathematics test reported a significant reduction in feelings of anxiety during the test (Khng, 2017).  Deep breathing created a better state-of-kind by enhancing test cognitions during the test, resulting in better performance.  This is a quick and simple technique that can be easily taught to students to immediately alleviate their anxiety.  


  • Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) which integrates both the behavioral approach (e.g., relaxation training) with cognitive processes (e.g., recognition and evaluation of self-talk and problem-solving skills) is effective for children and youth with anxiety disorders (Ollendick & King, 1998).  A school-based test anxiety prevention programme conducted with a sample of Singapore Primary 4 students found that skills related to the behavioral approach (such as relaxation techniques and the use of study skills) were effective with these students (Yeo et al., 2016).  However, cognitive skills such as calming self-talk were not effective with them. 


  • On the other hand, an intervention programme which required participants to employ cognitive strategies such as identifying and controlling negative thoughts concerning failure, controlling physiological reactions to stressors as well as learning test-preparation strategies, was found to be effective with secondary school students (Putwain & Pescod, 2018). 


What can schools do to help students manage test anxiety? 


Students can be taught to reframe stressful experience by adopting a stress-is-enhancing mindset.

  • They can also be taught the relationship between thoughts, feelings and actions and to recognize signs and triggers of test anxiety (Yeo et al., 2016; Putwain et al., 2014).
  • They can then pay attention to how they are feeling and use self-talk (e.g., “It’s okay.  I can do this”) to reduce their anxiety (Yeo et al., 2016).
  • They can also use deep breathing to calm themselves. This can be done by placing their palms on their lower abdomen and focusing on directing air into their belly.  They can then watch or feel the rise and fall of their abdomens with each inhalation or exhalation (Khng, 2017).
  • Students can be equipped study skills to prepare for examination (e.g., preparing a timetable to complete homework and a revision schedule) (Yeo et al., 2016).


However, it is important that education systems do not focus narrowly on well-being initiatives alone  but tackle the problem by taking a systems perspective.  In Singapore, there is a move towards a focus on holistic education and an emphasis on engaged learning (Ng, 2020).  Schools seek to nurture students so that they are emotionally anchored and have the values and skills to weather through challenging times. 



  • Students in Singapore experience academic stress arising from their own expectations as well as those from parents and teachers. 
  • Teachers can teach students strategies to take active steps to address their problems as well as relaxation techniques and study skills in a caring and enabling school and home environment.  Building a positive mindset can influence the stress response among students. 
  • A systems perspective is important in alleviating academic stress among students and in increasing student well-being. 




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Tan, C.S. (2022, September 16). What do we know about test anxiety amongst Singapore's students? Child and Human Development, Life@NIE SG®https://sites.google.com/g.nie.edu.sg/child-and-human-development/topics/at-risk-behaviors/test-anxiety