Test Anxiety and Sensitivity to Social Support among College Students: Effects on Salivary Cortisol

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ABSTRACT

Test anxiety (TA) is a situation-specific form of anxiety relating to the anticipation and experience of academic evaluation. We hypothesized that, for college students, social support would buffer the effects of test anxiety experienced just prior to exams. As such, the effects of TA and social support on a physiological index of stress (cortisol) were examined in a 'naturalistic' setting (i.e., the everyday lives of 49 students over a three-month period constituting a full academic semester). Our hypothesis was confirmed, but in an unexpected manner that indicates the complexity of the interplay between anxiety subtypes, social relationships, and stress responses: not only did social support exert a dampening effect among persons with high levels of test anxiety, but low levels of social support led to elevated cortisol in these individuals. Among participants with low test anxiety, cortisol levels were consistently moderate and unrelated to social support. Theories pertaining to anxiety and enhanced sensitivity to both damaging and protective influences are discussed.

KEYWORDS: anxiety sensitivity, cortisol, social support, test anxiety.

INTRODUCTION

Test anxiety is a multifaceted response to examination situations, comprising a complex interplay of cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and physiological elements. Anxiety pertaining specifically to the anticipation and experience of academic examinations was first flagged as an important aspect of stress research by Sarason and others in the 1950s (Mandler & Sarason, 1952; Sarason, 1959). Since then, numerous measures of test anxiety have been developed, and theories of mechanisms of effect and other associations have been studied. It is widely accepted that test anxiety consists of at least two distinct components - worry and emotionality (Everson, Millsap, & Rodriguez, 1991; Schwarzer, 1984; Spielberger, Gonzalez, Taylor, Algaze, & Anton, 1978; Ware, Galassi, Michie, & Drew, 1990), with interference and lack of confidence as additional defining aspect of the experience (Hodapp & Benson, 1997; Stöber, 2004).

Undergraduate university students are frequently used as convenient, nonclinical samples in psychological surveys and experiments. In the context of their general experiences of anxiety, it can be assumed that test anxiety is particularly pertinent to this population: students typically undergo multiple sittings of timepressured, intensive examinations yearly, in combination with continuously assessed coursework throughout each academic semester; their daily environment is, by nature, assessment-focused. Students tend to consistently cite exam and grade-related worries, financial concerns, and relationship problems (with families, friends, or romantic partners) as their greatest sources of anxiety (Furr, Westefield, McConnell, & Jenkins, 2001). It is reasonable to suggest that situation-specific anxiety such as test anxiety, co-occurs with other experiences of life stress, as well as dispositional tendencies towards anxiousness that are independent of environmental influences. As such, the experience of test anxiety might be better examined and understood by looking at a more comprehensive overall stress profile, rather than considering it in isolation.

Test anxiety and anxiety-related dispositions

Test anxiety is a facet of broader personality traits, and interacts significantly with other anxiety-related dispositions. A significant correlation between test anxiety and intelligence has been observed (Sarason & Irwin, 1959), as has an association between neuroticism and intelligence, which was found to be mediated by test anxiety: a significant correlation between these variables appears to present itself only in persons who are high in state anxiety, and this is not the case for those at the lower bounds of the state anxiety spectrum (Moutafi, Furnham, & Tsaousis, 2006). Neuroticism and test anxiety are closely correlated - a logical assumption, given that neuroticism and negative affect are seen as interchangeable, and test anxiety has been shown to have a distinct emotionality component. …