The effect of test-anxiety on EFL entrants’ written performance at ESI

Students: • Maria Prego García • Andrea C. Levio Subject: • Seminario Rotativo de Investigacion Teacher:

Ma. Palmira Massi

Escuela Superior de Idiomas Universidad del Comahue

ABSTRACT Anxiety has been thoroughly examined due to its complexity. There are several factors that can be considered sources of anxiety and at the same time, this affective variable can influence other aspects of the acquisition of a second or foreign language. For this reason, this problem can be tackled from different perspectives. However, there is shortage of studies on the interdependence between test-anxiety and students’ written performance that attempts to examine this correlation. The present project discusses this relationship from learners’ beliefs to generate an enlightening account of this issue. Data will be gathered by means of documentary evidence, Second Language Written Anxiety Inventory (SLWAI) designed by Cheng (2004), a questionnaire and a post-test interview. This research study may serve to anticipate that deeply rooted convictions might affect learners’ predisposition to anxiety. Finally, a negative correlation between test-anxiety and students’ written performance may be recognized, thus laying bare the debilitative role that test-anxiety might play in learners’ written performance.

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INTRODUCTION Anxiety is a common trait to all classrooms in the world which cannot be defined in a simple and comprehensive fashion since it involves diverse factors such as self-esteem, competitiveness, classroom procedures, cultural beliefs, among others. Even though there isn’t any key factor that generates anxiety, there has been considerable research which documents the relationship between anxiety and achievement in the learning of English as a foreign language. Anxiety has been regarded as one of the most relevant affective factors that influences second and foreign language acquisition Most studies have arrived at the conclusion that anxiety and achievement are negatively correlated. McIntyre and Gardner (1991) outline that “language anxiety can interfere with the acquisition, retention and production of the new language”. One of the subcategories of this affective element is testanxiety which involves a feeling of uneasiness or fear while taking exams. The majority of the projects have focused on speaking and listening as anxiety-provoking activities, thus overlooking writing tasks. Our research project attempts to establish an interdependence between test-anxiety and first-year students’ performance in compositions in exam instances. Besides, it will delve into student’s beliefs as regards the writing skill.

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THEORETICAL BACKGROUND The issue of anxiety in second language learning has stimulated particular interest in the field of Language Acquisition and Learning for its potential impact on L2 learners. Anxiety is a basic human emotion. As Horwitz states, it is “the subjective feeling of tension, apprehension, nervousness and worry associated with the arousal of the autonomic nervous system.” (Horwitz, 1996) Language anxiety, a subcategory of this affective variable, refers to the apprehension experienced when a situation requires the use of a second language at which the individuals are not fully proficient. It may arise from different sources related to particular situations that subjects perceive as threatening. Horwitz, Horwitz and Cope (1986) delineate three main sources of Foreign Language Anxiety: • • • Communication Apprehension Test Anxiety Fear of negative evaluation

The first one implies that students’ thoughts cannot be expressed in the target language due to the lack of appropriate vocabulary to develop those ideas. Apprehension may also be triggered by the inability to understand the tasks they have to carry out. Such feelings of tension are often accompanied by a fear of negative evaluation which refers to the emotional insecurity students experience when being exposed to others’ judgments. In addition to this, frustration and anger may arise due to language tests since students are challenged to express ideas paying attention to many grammar points at the same time, while being under pressure by the limited test period. In this particular case, students may undergo test-anxiety which is the tendency to become

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alarmed about the consequences of inadequate performance. As a result, students may find it difficult to focus on the task at hand. Young (1991) proposes a list of correlates of language anxiety which ranges from highly personal to procedural. In this study, only some of them will be mentioned for the purposes of the project. As regards personal issues, learners’ self-esteem and competitiveness may become potential sources of anxiety. The former refers to a personal judgment of worthiness that is expressed in the attitudes the individuals hold towards themselves. Anxiety may arise according to their degree of self-esteem. For instance, students with low self-esteem tend to worry about others’ evaluations. As regards competitiveness, language learners tend to compare themselves to others or to a self-image which they can rarely attain, thus leading to language anxiety. Learner’s beliefs about language learning can play a major role in generating language apprehension in students. According to Wenden (1999), beliefs are considered to be “a system of related ideas that are accepted without questioning and tend to be held tenaciously”. Horwitz (1988) presents various kinds of learners’ beliefs; some of them are unrealistic conceptions that involve erroneous notions about language learning. For instance, some students are prone to assume that pronunciation is the most important aspect of L2 learning while others consider that L2 learning means learning how to translate. These deeply-rooted ideas can lead to anxiety especially when they clash with reality. In relation to procedural correlates of L2 anxiety, the way in which mistakes are corrected can cause apprehension. In addition to this, classroom management and teacher-student interaction can be also considered to be sources of anxiety. Most discussions of Foreign Language Anxiety have focused on anxiety produced by speaking and listening activities (Prince, 1991;

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McIntyre, Noels and Clement, 1997). However, the skill of writing may also be a source of anxiety. For instance, Tsui (1996) proposed that learning to write in the foreign language may raise anxiety since it’s predominantly product-oriented and students are deprived of help and are under time constraints. As a result, learners suffer from distress and develop distaste for the writing process.

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THE STUDY Our focus of concern is anxiety, which is a highly important affective variable that has an influence on second language acquisition. Even though we tried to avoid entanglement, it was complicated for us to narrow down the scope of focus of this issue. For this reason, we decided to have an interview with the teachers of English I. They voluntarily provided us with some samples of in-class compositions following their own criteria ranging from high to low performance. While analyzing those samples we wondered whether anxiety was one of the factors affecting students’ scores. Taking these factors as the basis, we will attempt to analyze students’ scores in written tests as anxiety-generating situations. Besides we will take into account students’ beliefs towards written tests to investigate the relationship between them and test-anxiety. RESEARCH QUESTIONS • • What are students’ beliefs and attitudes towards written tests (compositions)? How does test-anxiety affect written performance on first-year students at Escuela Superior de Idiomas (ESI) in General Roca, Argentina? THE SUBJECTS In the year 2007, approximately 140 students enrolled for the subject English I at ESI. They were all entrants who could choose between the Teaching Training course or the Translator course. They were all native speakers of Spanish with an average age of 21 and most of them had studied English as a compulsory subject at high school. These pupils received 9 hours of formal instruction per week. In addition to this, they could consult a teacher who gave them coaching lessons.

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At the beginning of the academic year, students were divided into four groups. However, two groups were mixed up during the second term since a high number of students had dropped the subject. Next year we will conduct this research and we estimate that approximately 120 learners will enroll for English I since each academic year the number of students tends to decrease. In this study only a limited number of students (aprox. 20) will participate. We consider that these pupils will share similar traits to those previously depicted. Besides, as English I students will have different aims (to become either a teacher or a translator) their attitudes towards the target language will vary. For instance, learners who will want to become translators will tend to be more concerned about the meaning of every single word whereas those who aspire to be teachers will concentrate on the overall meaning of a text. DESIGN We will attempt to adopt an analytic-inductive perspective since we will deal with only one affective variable: anxiety. Once data has been collected, it will be categorized according to different patterns or regularities. Besides, we will conduct descriptive-research since we are concerned with the investigation of one phenomenon without modifying its development. DATA COLLECTION PROCEDURE Three main instruments will be used to gather information: interviews, questionnaires and documentary evidence. We will ask for permission to the teachers of English I to carry out all the necessary

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steps to gather data. Moreover, students’ names will be anonymously maintained so as to conceal their identities. In the first place, we will resort to the diagnostic test (Appendix A) given at the beginning of the academic year by teachers of English I, to gather information associated with the students’ levels of proficiency. In-class compositions and the two-term exams (Appendix B) will be used as another source of documentary evidence. As a second stage, we will administer a questionnaire (Appendix C) to some of the participants (10 students), who will be selected at random. This instrument will allow us to have a glance at the beliefs students have towards in-class written activities and the writing skill in general. It will be administered during the first week of the academic year and it will be composed in Spanish. After that, students will have to complete a second questionnaire (Appendix D) based on anxiety related to writing. Thus, we will get a panorama of students’ perceptions and feelings associated with the difficulties they have when facing a test. This instrument will be administered two weeks before carrying out the first term exam. We will use Cheng’s Second Language Anxiety Inventory (2004). While doing the questionnaire, a researcher will be present to clarify doubts. Finally, researchers will hold an interview (Appendix E) with each of the participants right after they’ve done their written tests, since anxiety is at its highest point. Then we will compare students’ results in the tests and the responses they have given during the interview. In this way, we will attempt to decipher the relationship between test-anxiety and achievement. Last but not least, we will try to find traces of the beliefs learners have towards writing in the responses they have given. DATA ANALYSIS PROCEDURE • Diagnostic Tests (Appendix A)

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We will resort to the scores obtained in the diagnostic tests which will be provided by teachers of English I at the beginning of the academic year. We will implement the marking scheme designed by the teachers of English I. We will adopt the following criteria to group the students:
Mark (x/100) From 1 to 45 From 46 to 79 From 80 to 100 Quality of performance Low Average High

Compositions (Appendix B) Compositions will be classified into three categories: high-,

average-, and low-performance on the basis of the criteria followed by the teachers of English I at ESI. These teachers place an emphasis on form. Following their standard, we will consider that serious mistakes are subject-verb agreement, verb tense, verb pattern, possessives, number-noun agreement, word order and omission of subject. Besides, students need to comply with the number of lines they have to write which generally oscillates between 8 and 10. In a high-level composition we will allow only one serious mistake. As regards an average composition, we will admit two serious mistakes and a composition that has more than three mistakes will be considered of low performance. • Questionnaire I (Appendix C) We will carry out a basic statistical analysis to identify students’ attitudes towards L2 writing performance so as to find similarities and later establish regularities. The information collected will be shown in a pie chart. • Questionnaire II (Appendix D) A basic quantitative analysis will be performed to identify levels of anxiety. The questionnaires will be analyzed individually. All the responses will be summed up and the result will be divided into the 10

number of statements (in our case, 16). A high score will represent a high level of anxiety while a low score will be compatible with a low degree of anxiety.
Score From 1 to 2 From 2.1 to 4 From 4.1 to 5 Level of anxiety Low Average High

Post-test Interview (Appendix E) We will carry out a qualitative analysis which will complement

the questionnaire about anxiety in order to delineate the learners’ levels of anxiety. Later, we will compare each student’s degree of anxiety with their written results and this will enable us to answer our second research question. In other words, this will reveal whether there is a correlation between test-anxiety and written achievement. Finally, we will juxtapose this interview and the questionnaire on beliefs to find recurrent patterns about these deeply-rooted views about L2 writing performance. ANTICIPATED OUTCOMES From what we have perceived, we may identify the following outcomes: - As regards our first research question, we might find several beliefs such as: • • • • • Time as a negative variable in test-situations. Fear of others’ evaluations, especially teachers’ judgments. Writing as a skill that doesn’t seem to present difficulties. Writing as only a process that implies translation of Spanish thoughts into English. Writing as a process of summarizing other people’s ideas.

These deeply-rooted ideas may be one of the factors that predisposes students to writing anxiety.

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- As regards our second research question, we will probably find a negative correlation between test-anxiety and learners’ written scores. For instance, students with high levels of anxiety may be liable to have low written results. In this sense, we may suggest that test-anxiety plays a negative role when writing compositions in a test situation.

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CONCLUSION We have been attracted by this topic since anxiety is a trait common to all students in the world regardless of their gender, age or socio-cultural contexts. We consider that this project has been fruitful since it has helped us to develop critical thinking with respect to test anxiety and students’ written performance. As a conclusion, this research project may enable us to become aware that writing involves as much anxiety as any other skill. Furthermore, we consider that writing should also be taught in our mother tongue so as to raise students’ awareness of the underlying process it requires. In our opinion, teachers should try to create a low-anxiety atmosphere in which students can feel free to express their thoughts. One possible alternative can be to incorporate anxiety-relieving strategies. For instance, teachers can let students know that there are relaxation techniques (breathing exercises) that can be done before doing an exam. They can even simulate a test instance in which they can use those techniques they have incorporated. Finally, one further field of research would take into account teachers’ perceptions of anxiety in test instances since they are the observers of diverse anxiety-generating situations.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY Cheng, Y .-S. (2004). A measure of second language writing anxiety: Scale development and preliminary validation. Journal of Second Language Writing, 13, 313-335. Cheng, Y .-S., Horwitz, E. K., & Schallert, D. (1999). Language anxiety: Differentiating writing and speaking components. Language Learning, 49, 417–446. Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Teaching and researching motivation. London: Longman Gardner, R. C. & P. D. MacIntyre. (1993). On the measurement of affective variables in second language learning. Language Learning, 43, 157-194 Horwitz, E. K., Horwitz, M. B., & Cope, J. (1986). Foreign language classroom anxiety. Modern Language Journal, 70, 125-132. MacIntyre, P. D. & R. C. Gardner. (1994). The subtle effects of language anxiety on cognitive processing in the second language. Language Learning, 44, 283-305. MacIntyre, P. D. (1999). Language anxiety: A review for the research for language teachers. In D. J. Young (Ed.), Affect in foreign language and second language learning: A practical guide to creating a lowanxiety classroom atmosphere (pp. 24-45). NY: McGraw-Hill. McIntyre, P. D., & Gardner, R. C. (1989). Anxiety and second language learning: Toward a theoretical clarification. Language Learning, 39, 251-257. MacIntyre, P. D., & Gardner, R. C. (1994). The subtle effects of language anxiety on cognitive processing in the second language learning. Language learning, 44, 283-305 Thompson, M. O. (1980). Classroom techniques for reducing writing anxiety: A study of several cases. Paper presented at the annual conference on College Composition and Communication, Washington, D.C. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 188 661). Tsui, A. (1995). Introducing classroom interaction. London: Penguin. Tsui, A. B. M. (1996). Reticence and anxiety in second language learning. In K. M. Bailey & D. Nunan (Eds.). Voices from the language classroom (pp.145-168). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Young, D. J. (1992). Language anxiety from the foreign language specialist's perspective: Interviews with Krashen, Omaggio, Hadley, Terrell, and Rardin. Foreign Language Annals, 25, 157-172.

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Appendix C: Cuestionario
Elegí la opción con la que más te identifiques. (Trata de ser sincero al responder ya que esta información será usada para una futura investigación)

1. Cuando escribo primero pienso en español y luego lo transfiero al inglés.

A

B

C
Nunca Siempre A veces

2. Cuando escribo una composición la narro, como si estuviera hablando a un tercero.

A

B

C
Siempre

A veces Nunca

3. Antes de empezar a escribir hago un esquema con las ideas principales.

A

B
Nunca

C
Siempre A veces

4. Los esquemas son útiles para organizar lo que uno escribe.

A

B A

C B

Siempre A veces Nunca

5. El factor tiempo es una presión al momento de escribir en un examen.

C
Nunca Siempre A veces

6. Tengo el vocabulario suficiente para expresar mis ideas.

A

B A B

C C

Siempre A veces Nunca

7. Cuando escribo puedo transmitir todo lo que quiero expresar.

8. Cuando tengo que escribir una composición en clase y con nota no me arriesgo a usar el vocabulario recientemente aprendido por miedo a cometer errores. A B C
Siempre A veces Nunca

Siempre A veces Nunca

9. Cuando estoy por empezar a escribir una composición en un examen me pongo tan nervioso que mi mente se pone en blanco. A B C
Siempre A veces Nunca

10. Escribir implica un proceso de creación que tiene estructuras y estilos particulares.

A
Sie

B

C

mpre A veces Nunca

11. Cuando escribo una composición pienso en lo que mi profesora puede llegar a comentar. A B C
empre A veces Nunca Si

12. Cuando tengo que escribir de un tema que no me gusta, o del que no tengo mucho conocimiento el proceso de escribir se me hace tedioso y complejo. A B C
Siempre A veces Nunca

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Appendix D: Second Language Writing Anxiety Inventory (developed by Cheng, 2004)
Read the statements below very carefully. For each statement, among the choices 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 circle the most suitable one for you. As the findings of this test are going to be used in for research, we kindly request you be honest while answering the questions. 1. I feel my heart pounding when I write English compositions under time constraint.
1 I strongly disagree I strongly agree 2 3 I disagree 4 I have no strong 5 I agree

Feelings either way

2. While writing English compositions, I feel worried and uneasy if I know they will be evaluated.
1 I strongly disagree I strongly agree 2 3 I disagree 4 I have no strong 5 I agree

Feelings either way

3. I often choose to write down my thoughts in English.
1 I strongly disagree I strongly agree 2 3 I disagree

4 I have no strong

5 I agree

Feelings either way

4. I usually do my best to avoid writing English compositions.
1 I strongly disagree I strongly agree 2 3 I disagree 4 I have no strong

5 I agree

Feelings either way

5. My mind often goes blank when I start to work on an English composition.
1 I strongly disagree I strongly agree 2 3 I disagree 4 I have no strong 5 I agree

Feelings either way

6. I tremble or perspire when I write English compositions under time pressure.
1 I strongly disagree I strongly agree 2 3 I disagree 4 I have no strong 5 I agree

Feelings either way

7. If my English composition is to be evaluated, I would worry about getting a very poor grade.
1 I strongly disagree I strongly agree 2 3 I disagree 4 I have no strong 5 I agree

Feelings either way

8. I do my best to avoid situations in which I have to write in English.
1 I strongly disagree I strongly agree 2 3 I disagree 4 I have no strong 5 I agree

Feelings either way

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9. My thoughts become jumbled when I write English compositions under time constraint.
1 I strongly disagree I strongly agree 2 3 I disagree 4 I have no strong 5 I agree

Feelings either way

10. Unless I have no choice, I would not use English to write compositions.
1 I strongly disagree I strongly agree 2 3 I disagree 4 I have no strong 5 I agree

Feelings either way

11. I often feel panic when I write English compositions under time constraint.
1 I strongly disagree I strongly agree 2 3 I disagree 4 I have no strong 5 I agree

Feelings either way

12. I am afraid that the other students would deride my English composition if they read it.
1 I strongly disagree I strongly agree 2 3 I disagree 4 I have no strong 5 I agree

Feelings either way

13. I freeze up when unexpectedly asked to write English compositions.
1 I strongly disagree I strongly agree 2 3 I disagree 4 I have no strong 5 I agree

Feelings either way

14. I would do my best to excuse myself if asked to write English compositions.
1 I strongly disagree I strongly agree 2 3 I disagree 4 I have no strong 5 I agree

Feelings either way

15. I usually feel my whole body rigid and tense when write English compositions.
1 I strongly disagree I strongly agree 2 3 I disagree 4 I have no strong 5 I agree

Feelings either way

16. I am afraid of my English composition being chosen as a sample for discussion in class.
1 I strongly disagree I strongly agree 2 3 I disagree 4 I have no strong 5 I agree

Feelings either way

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Appendix E: Post-Test Interview
1. ¿Cuando te sentís ansioso: antes o durante el examen? 2. ¿Por qué crees que los alumnos se sienten ansiosos al hacer una composición? ¿Cuáles fueron los factores que te presionaron cuando estabas haciendo el Mid–Term Test? (¿El tiempo? ¿Sentir la presencia del docente, es decir que te está controlando? ¿Sino qué otro factor?) 3. ¿Cuándo tus compañeros entregan el examen y a vos te falta terminar, te pones nervioso? 4. ¿Estás satisfecho después de haber hecho esta composición en clase? (Seguís pensando en qué podrías haber hecho, ¿o como podrías haber mejorado tu producción escrita? ¿En qué aspectos? ) 5. ¿Cuál crees que es tu resultado del test? ¿Por qué?
.

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The effect of test-anxiety on EFL entrants’ written performance at ESI
Purpose: • • To get a panorama of learners’ beliefs associated with writing. To examine the possible correlation between test-anxiety and written performance. Research questions: 1. What are students’ beliefs and attitudes towards written tests (compositions)? 2. How does test-anxiety affect written performance on first-year students at Escuela Superior de Idiomas (ESI) in General Roca, Argentina? Subjects: The participants will be entrants of English I course at ESI from the year 2008. They will be selected at random. Design: In order to analyze the data, we will attempt to adopt an analytic perspective. We will carry out an inductive study. Data collection procedure: • • • • Diagnostic tests In-class compositions and the two term exams Two questionnaires A post-test interview

Anticipated outcomes: As regards our first question, we may find several beliefs such as time as a negative variable in test situations or fear of others’ evaluation, especially teachers’ judgments. As regards our second research question, we will probably find a negative correlation between test-anxiety and learners’ written scores. In this sense,

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we may suggest this variable plays a negative role when writing composition in exam instances.

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