Exam jitters? Professors battle test anxiety, too

Mary Ellen Gabriel

Students aren’t alone when it comes to exam nerves. Turns out some professors grapple with worry and angst at test time, too.

Jenny Saffran, PhD
Jenny Saffran, PhD

“I look out and see 200 students with their No. 2 pencils and their Diet Cokes, looking kind of scruffy and tense,” says University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology Professor Jenny Saffran. “And I feel nervous — in part because it’s my fault that they are nervous.”

Saffran, a well-known researcher who received the UW-Madison Chancellor’s Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2009, says that exams, for her, have gotten a little less nerve-wracking over the years. But she still gets “a sense of dread” after the test has been passed out, and students are bending over it for the first time.

“Are the questions too hard? Are they too easy? Did I make all the studying worthwhile for them?” she says, ticking off the doubts that still assail her. “That’s what I think about at the front of the room.”

Not every professor experiences such existential moments before a test. Eric Hoyt, an assistant professor of communication arts, has faced down his own demons after exams were turned in.

“You see it in the blue books, if you wrote questions poorly,” he says. “You wonder, why did I make them go through this?”

Hoyt, who’s received strong teaching evaluations since arriving at UW-Madison last fall, always includes short-answer and essay questions on his exams. He has “a great team of TAs” to help him evaluate hundreds of in-depth answers.

“As a humanities professor, I am always hoping they have made connections to the broader world,” he says. “Some of my essay questions are very self-reflective. How does what they’re learning fit into their lives, and what they want to do?”

Saffran, on the other hand, gives multiple-choice exams that burrow deep into the material. Earlier in her teaching career, she could spend up to 40 hours — a full work week — crafting an exam with a minimum of 60 questions (she spurns the “testing packages” offered with textbooks).

“I have to make sure that the wrong answers are wrong in interesting ways, not in ‘duh’ ways,” she says. “And that the right ones are really right.”

To determine whether her questions are good or bad, Saffran “grades” herself. If most of the students who performed well on the exam, overall, answered a question right — and students who performed poorly on the exam, overall, got it wrong — then the question is good. A bad question would be one that everybody got right, or everybody got wrong.

“I have this sort of data for every question on every exam I have ever given,” she says. “I’ve used it to help me improve my exams over time.”

Seth Pollak, PhD
Seth Pollack, PhD

Psychology Professor Seth Pollak wanted his undergraduate students to understand what he was trying to accomplish with exams. So he created a document that explained the types of multiple-choice questions to expect, and how to think about them. From “declarative recall” (basic facts) to “critical thinking” (applying what’s been learned to a new situation), Pollack offered behind-the-scenes insight about what goes on in a professor’s head in cooking up an exam.

“Students loved it,” Pollak recalls. “I think it led them to pause when they saw a question and ask, ‘What is he trying to test me on, here?’”

Pollak, also a recipient of the Chancellor’s Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2001, says his biggest exam-related fear early in his career was always, am I not being fair?

“It’s a terrible thing to hear from a student,” he says.

A little worry keeps you on your toes — but too much worry isn’t good for anyone. These professors try to remind themselves, and their students, about the big picture.

“An exam is an opportunity for both of us,” Hoyt says. “For me, it not only tells me how well I’m doing as an instructor, but also something about my students’ tastes and aspirations. For them, it’s a chance to reflect on what they got out of the whole experience.”

Pollak sums it up this way:

“What are your professors thinking? They’re thinking that they want you to walk away with stuff that won’t disappear the minute the exam is over. It feels good to give a challenging exam and say, ‘These students got this.’ Maybe they’ll go home over winter break and share with their families what they learned here at UW-Madison.”