Testing is ubiquitous in higher education and students’ prospects for progression and graduating are dependent upon test performance. Many factors impact test performance . Test anxiety is a key determinant of poorer test and academic performance [2, 3]. Test anxiety is a situation-specific form of anxiety whereby individuals appraise performance-evaluative situations as threatening . Approximately 25% of college students are highly test anxious [5,6,7], with females reporting more severe test anxiety severity than males . Highly test anxious individuals react with excessive worry about the consequences of failure, and somatic anxiety symptoms (e.g., muscle tension) in tests . Worry, the cardinal feature of test anxiety , uses mental resources that would be better used for maximising test performance . Test anxiety interferes directly with the taking of tests, and also influences students’ studying style, with test-anxious students more likely adopt a surface-learning approach [10, 11]. Given the negative effects of test anxiety on learning and test performance, understanding and treating test anxiety is essential so that students are able to fulfil their academic potential.
Many interventions for test anxiety have been evaluated [4, 12]. Unfortunately, existing psychological and educational interventions for test anxious college students have achieved only modest effects . Most interventions are based upon behavioral approaches that use muscle relaxation techniques. Test anxiety might be more effectively treated by explicitly focusing on reducing worry, its key feature. Two contemporary transdiagnostic psychological models of emotional disorder that can account for worry and anxiety are the intolerance of uncertainty model (IUM) [13, 14] and the Self-Regulatory Executive Function (S-REF) model [15, 16]. Each model proposes different psychological mechanisms that result in anxiety.
The IUM consist of four components: intolerance of uncertainty, positive beliefs about worry, negative problem orientation, and cognitive avoidance [13, 14]. Intolerance of uncertainty, which has been likened to a cognitive bias in which uncertainty and ambiguity are viewed as threatening, is proposed to directly lead to worry and anxiety . Positive beliefs about worry refers to beliefs that worry is a helpful coping strategy, negative problem orientation refers to individuals doubt about their problem-solving abilities, and cognitive avoidance refers to strategies aimed at avoiding or suppressing unwanted thoughts or images. Intolerance of uncertainty is the considered key component that leads both directly to worry and indirectly via positive beliefs about worry, negative problem orientation, and cognitive avoidance [13, 14, 17]. Individuals with high intolerance of uncertainty engage in worry as a means of increasing their subjective sense of control when faced with ambiguous or uncertain situations [18, 19]. Intolerance of uncertainty is associated with both worry  and anxiety [20,21,22], and experimental manipulations which increase intolerance of uncertainty results in corresponding increases in worry and anxiety [23, 24]. Meta-analyses have found intolerance of uncertainty implicated in the development and maintenance of emotional disorders [25,26,27]. Cognitive-behavioral therapy based upon the IUM is effective in reducing anxiety [28, 29]. The applicability of this model to test anxiety is obvious as students will be uncertain about the exact content of their examinations, the effectiveness of their test preparation, and the effectiveness of their performance. Consistent with this observation, in the only study examining intolerance of uncertainty and test anxiety, intolerance of uncertainty was linked to higher levels of test anxiety among college students .
The S-REF model states that a form of maladaptive self-regulation, termed the cognitive attentional syndrome (CAS), results in emotional disorder [15, 16]. The CAS has three components: (1) repetitive self-focused thinking in the form of worry, rumination, and overanalyzing, (2) attentional focus on sources of threat, and (3) unhelpful ways of coping (e.g., trying to distract oneself from one’s anxiety). This style of self-regulation has the effect of maintaining an individual’s sense of threat and distress. In test anxiety, the CAS may manifest itself as worry about the consequences of failing, active monitoring—of thoughts, emotions, and the environments—for signs of threat (e.g., ‘scanning’ their body for signs of anxiety or noticing failures in memory), and maladaptive coping efforts (e.g., test irrelevant thinking as means of distraction). The CAS primarily arises from metacognitive beliefs. Many metacognitive beliefs and processes have been implicated across anxiety disorders, with positive beliefs about usefulness of worry, negative beliefs about the uncontrollability and danger of worry, and beliefs about one’s memory, most commonly associated . S-REF theory predicts ‘negative beliefs about the uncontrollability and danger of worry’ as being particularly important in emotional disorders because they elevate and perpetuate cycles of negative thinking . Metacognitive beliefs are associated with test anxiety in college students, with ‘negative beliefs about the uncontrollability and danger of worry’ showing the largest associations [33, 34].
In summary, both the IUM and S-REF model appear applicable to test anxiety. Both models propose that positive beliefs about worry led to the selection of worry as a means of coping. Everyone worries from time-to-time, and worry can enhance motivation . Worry becomes problematic if an individual feels they are unable to stop worrying and when it begins interfering with their life and tasks . A key point of divergence between the two models are the beliefs posited that heighten and maintain worry and anxiety, namely, intolerance of uncertainty and maladaptive metacognitive beliefs. Intolerance of uncertainty and metacognitive beliefs are differentially associated with emotional disorder symptoms among college students . Both intolerance of uncertainty and maladaptive metacognitive beliefs have been linked to test anxiety but no study has investigated them both together to examine if one or both sets of beliefs play an important role in test anxiety. Understanding the links intolerance of uncertainty and metacognitive beliefs have to test anxiety will help to develop a better psychological conceptualization of test anxiety; an important first step toward the development of an efficacious intervention. We derive our hypotheses from the S-REF model, which proposes that metacognitive beliefs are more important than beliefs in the cognitive domain (i.e., intolerance of uncertainty) in the genesis and maintenance of emotional disorder. Metacognitive beliefs have been shown to make a more substantive association to anxiety and depression symptomology than cognitive beliefs [38,39,40]. In particular, ‘negative beliefs about the uncontrollability and danger of worry’ are consistently and strongly associated with emotional disorder  and state and trait test anxiety . We therefore hypothesise that: (1) both intolerance of uncertainty and metacognitive beliefs will each be significantly and uniquely associated with test anxiety, (2) the metacognitive belief domain of ‘negative beliefs about the uncontrollability and danger of worry’ will have largest association with test anxiety, and (3) metacognitive beliefs will be able to explain greater variance in test anxiety than intolerance of uncertainty.