In-Person Instruction Returns with Test Anxiety

As we finish the first entirely in-person school year since the pandemic started, The Maroon takes a look at how students’ test anxiety has evolved over the different teaching formats.

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By Solana Adedokun

During these last two years, UChicago students and professors had to be prepared to switch between in-person and remote learning at a moment’s notice. However, the lifting of COVID-19 mandates on-campus, generally low positivity rates, and widespread vaccination rates allowed much of University life to remain in-person this past year. Yet after nearly two years of online testing, some students have found the transition back to traditional in-person testing anxiety-inducing and problematic. 

Hayley Szymanek, a second-year Computer Science and Creative Writing student, shared how her anxiety heightens around a week before an exam and intensifies as her test nears.  

“[P]hysically, I start shaking and I get into a hyper-focused mode…which is one of the things where I’m so nervous about [the exam] happening, but I can’t really see the questions in front of me. I’m fully processing them,…but it just feels like [the exam] is the only thing that matters at the time and it’s this incredible stressor,” Szymanek said. 

Prior to remote learning, Szymanek describes experiencing low levels of anxiety, “something that [was] present, but [could] be ignored.” Many tests were made open-note or easier in response to the difficulties of online learning, which had helped alleviate Szymanek’s stress. 

Sanjna Narayan, another second-year, described her anxiety as more of a feeling of frustration. Specifically, that she knows the material but struggles to recall it because of the stressful environment tests create. 

In a written statement, Narayan told The Maroon, “[O]nline learning provided an environment where we were able to actually apply our learning in a familiar environment. It’s been difficult transitioning back to in-person exams because they create such a stressful vacuum-like environment where applying my knowledge isn’t first nature.” 

While Szymanek felt like her anxiety levels did not vary over the transition back to in-person exams, Narayan saw her anxiety levels worsen. However, both students shared that they felt wary of using Student Wellness for their anxiety issues. 

“I went to Student Wellness a long time ago, for a separate thing…and [they were] not super helpful. [T]hey generally don’t have a great reputation,” Szymanek said. “[T]heir whole thing is they’ll see you once and then they’ll pretty immediately refer you out…I could have just looked for that myself.” 

Meeta Kumar, the Director of Counseling for UChicago Student Wellness for over two years, has tried to improve the relationship between students and Student Wellness by disseminating more information about the services and support systems it offers. 

In an interview with The Maroon, Kumar noted that besides psychiatry services, Student Wellness runs programs like Academic Skills Assessment Program (ASAP) that has workshops for students to better manage issues and/or triggers that would increase anxiety in order to improve students’ academic performance. Additionally, Kumar shared how Student Wellness continually reaches out and connects with students through their Instagram, email announcements, newsletters, and through events like Orientation. 

However, in regards to the shift from asynchronous and online exams to in-person exams, Kumar believes that the problem is less of an uptick in students’ test-related anxiety, but rather lies in “adjustment issues.” 

“Anxiety during tests is a normal experience…but test anxiety impairs a person’s ability to perform during a test,” Kumar said. This is when a professional can be helpful in understanding the roots of a person’s anxiety and developing treatments.  

Kumar recommends students try to maintain good study and time management habits to minimize anxiety around tests. Additionally, she said that activities like journaling about worries, incorporating breathing exercises in one’s daily routine, and talking to a trusted individual can help minimize a person’s anxiety. 

However, Szymanek’s comment on UChicago’s academic culture highlights the perpetuating feelings of stress that exacerbate the new feelings of anxiety experienced by students.  

“So much of academics around the school focus on, ‘How many elements of stress can we put you under?’ And have you still perform and demonstrate knowledge that way,” said Szymanek. “I think that’s also part of why [the University is] so annoying about accommodations, because they see it almost as a weakness, and ‘Oh, we’re not putting you through the same levels of rigor,’ when the rigor in question is just how little sleep can you get over the specific two week period and do this much work and cram as much as possible.”