Hand Temperature, Test Anxiety, and Test Performance: a Correlational Study
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
RITTER, M. R. (1999). Hand Temperature, Test Anxiety, and Test Performance: a Correlational Study. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 2. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

Hand Temperature, Test Anxiety, and Test Performance: a Correlational Study
Missouri Western State University DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY

Sponsored by: Brian Cronk (cronk@missouriwestern.edu)

It is a known fact that anxiety affects performance. From kindergarten through graduate school, students will be evaluated by their ability to perform well on course examinations and standardized tests. With so much emphasis being placed on test performance, many practitioners and theorists have focused much of their attention on understanding and treating test anxiety. The purpose of this research is to investigate possible physiological components of test anxiety. This research is the preliminary first step in this investigative process. Missouri Western State College students were tested and measured on the following variables: Pre-test Hand Temperature, Test Anxiety, Test Performance, and Post-test Hand Temperature. The hypothesis was that a significant correlation between these variables might suggest a physiological component to test anxiety. A Pearson correlation and a linear multiple regression will be calculated to determine if any of the variable correlations are statistically significant.

Anxiety has been defined as feelings of apprehension and nervousness accompanied by the activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System (S.N.S.) (Crooks & Stein, 1988). The S.N.S. prepares the body for the "fight-or-flight" response described by Walter B. Cannon (Greenberg, 1983). With the activation of the S.N.S. comes a torrent of physiological changes to the body: heart rate increases, blood pressure increases, perspiration increases, and blood is diverted away from the extremities toward the internal organs (Plotnik & Mollenauer, 1978). A decrease in blood flow to the extremities can be easily detected by monitoring the temperature of the subject`s hands with a simple hand thermometer.It is theorized that the fight-or-flight response is a fear-induced reaction to life threatening situations from our distant past (i.e., being stalked by a saber-tooth tiger) (Davis, Robbins-Eschelman, & McKay, 1995). Herbert Benson suggests that we can reverse the fight-or-flight response by using what he termed "the relaxation response" (Davis, Robbins-Eshelman, & McKay, 1995). The relaxation response is based on the premise that by relaxing our minds, we relax our bodies, and by relaxing our bodies we return to psycho-physiological homeostasis. The current literature suggests many techniques for mastering self-regulation to diminish the effects of stress and anxiety. The most widely discussed self-regulation techniques include: progressive muscle relaxation, EMG biofeedback training, finger temperature biofeedback training, and autogenic training (Leherer, Carr, Sargunaraj, & Woolfolk, 1994). One goal of this research is to determine if any of these techniques can be adapted for the treatment of test anxiety. This study is based on the assumption that the physiological effects of test anxiety are the same as the physiological effects of anxiety in general. For the purposes of this study, a simple finger temperature measurement will serve as an indicator of tension or anxiety. Boudewins (1976) and Taub (1975) explain that, "Tension or anxiety restricts the peripheral blood flow and leads to a decrease in finger temperature; a reduction in temperature produces the opposite effects" (Spielberger & Vagg, P.174). The purpose of this research is to investigate a possible correlation of Hand Temperature(HT), Test Anxiety(TA), and Test Performance(TP). If a significant correlation is found, this would suggest a physiological component to TA. Further research might then be conducted to investigate methods of reducing TA through finger temperature training or other methods of self-regulation.


The participants for this research were 20 Missouri Western State College (M.W.S.C.) students enrolled in a PSY 200 course offered on Tuesday nights from 6:30p.m.to 9:20p.m. The participants consisted of 12 traditional students (under the age of 25) and eight non-traditional students (over the age of 25). The majority of the class consisted of white females as is typical of all Psychology courses at M.W.S.C.

The materials used for this research included standard finger thermometers (model ST77), tape for attaching the thermometers, and both oral and written instructions on how to attach the finger thermometer and record hand temperature. The instructor awarded six extra credit points to the midterm grades of all students who participated. Other materials included a brief section for demographics such as age and gender, as well as a twenty-question Spielberger Test Anxiety Inventory (Appendix).

On October 26,1999, 20 students were asked to participate in this research. The research took place immediately before a course exam. At the beginning of the class period each of the participants was handed a finger thermometer, tape, and all of the instructions necessary to complete the research. The participants were then instructed orally on how to attach the finger thermometer properly as well as how to read and record their hand temperature. The participants were also instructed to record the last four digits of their social security number on the handout as well as the exam answer sheet. These numbers were used to correlate exam scores with the information on the handout and ensure participant anonymity. After the completion of their exam, each participant recorded their post-test hand temperature and completed the test anxiety scale.

From the literature review it was predicted that there would be a small but statistically significant correlation between HT, TA, and TP. It was further predicted that those subjects with lower HT would show a higher degree of TA and possibly a lower TP score. A multiple linear regression was calculated to make predictions about subjects` TP based on: pre-test HT, post-test HT, total score on the Test Anxiety Inventory (TAI), TAI sub-scales (E) (W) &(T), gender, and status (traditional student or non-traditional student).A significant regression equation was found (F(2,16)=10.368,p<.05), with an R2 of .564. Subjects` predicted test scores are equal to 128.520 - 2.114(W) - 13.062(status) when status is coded as 1 = traditional student, 2 = non-traditional student, and TP is measured by exam scores. For all subjects, as scores on the TAI sub-scale (W) increased by 1, their exam scores decreased by 2.114. Non-traditional students scored an average of 13.062 points below the average for traditional students. Thus, the score on the TAI sub-scale (W), and the non-traditional student status were significant predictors for TP.

The original impetus for this study was to investigate the physiological components of test anxiety. The logical first step was to establish biological baselines for subjects during normal testing conditions. It was hypothesized that subjects with a lower hand temperature during testing conditions would also have higher test anxiety and lower test scores. The results of this research produced no significant findings. The design of this study failed to take into account that, in a small sample size of 20, it is very possible that no subjects in that group suffered from high-level test anxiety. A better design would be to distribute the Test Anxiety Inventory to a large number of students and take from that group a random sample of subjects who score extremely high on the scale. This design would allow the researcher to focus on the physiology of highly anxious test-takers as opposed to test-takers in general. A new theory that came out of this research is that test anxiety may follow the same principle as the Yerkes-Dodson law of motivation. It seems logical that, as with motivation, subjects` performance is actually enhanced by anxiety up to a certain level. Finding that level of optimum performance would lend itself well to further research. This research project provided more questions than answers. The primary question still remains; "What happens to people physiologically as they experience test anxiety?" When we find the answer to that question, the next logical step is to find methods to either diminish the crippling effects of test anxiety or to teach students how to utilize the anxiety to their advantage.

Crooks,R.L., & Stein, J. (1988). Psychology: Science, behavior, and life. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, Inc. Davis, M., Robbins-Eshelman,E., McKay,M. (1995) The relaxation and stress reduction workbook. Oakland: New Harbringer Publications,Inc. Greenberg,J.S. (1983). Comprehensive stress management. Dubuque: Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers. Lehrer, P.M., Carr, R., Sargunaraj,D., & Woolfolk, R.L. (1994). Stress management techniques: Are they all equivalent, or do they have specific effects? Biofeedback and Self-Regulation, 19, 353. Plotnik, R. &Mollenauer, S. (1978). Brain and behavior: An introduction to physiological psychology. New York: Harper & Row. Spielberger, C.D. & Vagg, P.R. (1995). Test anxiety; Theory, assessment, and treatment. Washington:Taylor & Francis.

Submitted 11/30/99 12:38:40 PM
Last Edited 11/30/99 12:46:50 PM
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