A recent study conducted at the University of Kansas uncovers the intricate relationship between test anxiety and poor sleep among college students. The research sheds light on this vicious cycle, emphasizing its impact on academic performance not only within the university but also in educational institutions nationwide.
Published in The International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, the University of Kansas study titled Test Anxiety and Poor Sleep: A Vicious Cycle delves into the biopsychosocial factors underlying test anxiety. The findings suggest that interventions targeting this cycle could enhance academic performance and reduce student attrition rates, which currently stand at around 40% for first-year students in the United States.
Experiencing a certain level of nervousness before exams, such as the Board of Certification (BOC) exam, is normal for students. It can serve as motivation to study and prepare. However, for some individuals, test anxiety triggers a negative feedback loop that exacerbates anxiety and hampers productivity. Physical symptoms associated with test anxiety include nausea, headaches, sweaty palms, and an accelerated heart rate, while psychological symptoms manifest as stress, anxiety, insomnia, and difficulties concentrating. In severe cases, test anxiety can significantly impair coping mechanisms.
Test anxiety poses a substantial academic challenge for college students, with prevalence rates ranging from 10% to 40%. Higher levels of test anxiety are linked to poorer test performance and lower grades.
The University of Kansas researchers propose that a biological cycle contributes to the academic struggles associated with test anxiety. In this cycle, test anxiety leads to sleep disturbances, which, in turn, worsen anxiety symptoms. To examine this hypothesis, the research team conducted a passive observational study involving students preparing for a midterm statistics exam. The Sleep Anxiety Performance Process (SAPP) model was employed to compare the results.
Professor Nancy Hamilton, the lead researcher and psychology professor at KU, explained, “We aimed to investigate the factors predicting students’ performance in statistics classes, which are often dreaded by undergraduates. Our goal was to uncover the relationship between sleep, anxiety, and test performance, and observe how this correlation unfolds over time.”
Over the course of two days preceding the exam, the study observed 167 college students. Electronic sleep diaries were used to gather data on participants’ sleep patterns, including bedtime, sleep onset latency, number of awakenings, post-sleep onset awakenings, time spent in bed, sleep duration, sleep quality, restfulness, total sleep time, and sleep efficiency. Test anxiety levels were assessed using a standardized questionnaire administered during the study period.
The study revealed a bidirectional relationship between test anxiety and sleep quality, where poor sleep exacerbated anxiety while improved sleep ameliorated it. Hamilton expressed hope that these findings would prompt universities to enhance communication with students regarding test anxiety, raising awareness about its prevalence and providing valuable resources for support. Proactive approaches to addressing test anxiety may lead to improved student outcomes and reduced dropout rates, as well as mitigating maladaptive coping mechanisms among students.
Hamilton added, “Previous studies have shown that students often adopt unhealthy behaviors as a means of coping with anxiety. For instance, students may rely on caffeine to combat anxiety-related sleep issues, which can, ironically, exacerbate sleep problems, particularly if consumed in the afternoon or evening. In some cases, students resort to self-medication using alcohol or sedatives to alleviate anxiety symptoms.”
In short – if you’re preparing to take the BOC exam, start improving your sleep habits and taking steps to remove other unhealthy habits. Good luck!