How Teachers Can Help Students Cope with Test Anxiety
Since we first wrote about coping with test anxiety, the whole world has changed is so many ways. Measuring student success against the “where they should be” model is challenged with the delayed learning of the pandemic world. Stress and anxiety are even higher for both adults and children.
Even as more emphasis is being placed on approaches like personalized learning, project-based learning, and competency-based education, there’s no way around the reality that testing remains a big deal. Teachers and students alike devote a lot of time and effort in the classroom and at home to preparing for all kinds of testing, including the reinstatement of state exams, because they know a lot is riding on them. For some students, this causes their feelings about testing to morph from a willingness to try their best to all-out test anxiety.
The American Psychological Association recognizes test anxiety as a type of performance anxiety, characterized by extreme nervousness about taking a test. Test anxiety can occur when students have an underlying fear of failure, when they feel extreme pressure to do well, or when they’ve had poor previous testing experiences. It can result in an assortment of physical symptoms, such as simple “butterflies in the stomach” or more serious symptoms, including headache, nausea, and light-headedness, as well as emotional and cognitive symptoms like feelings of helplessness and difficulty concentrating. Students with serious test-anxiety often experience such symptoms, even if they’ve worked hard to prepare for the test and know the material—they’ll simply freeze or go blank once the test is in front of them. In our current world where schools are shifting between in-person and virtual learning, anxiety is likely even higher, as worries about being prepared or general anxiety mix in with other test-taking reactions.
Of course, no teacher or caregiver wants to see a student stressed out to this extent over any single test. So, what can educators do to help learners manage test anxiety and take the fear out of testing day? Here are seven helpful tips:
1. Prioritize classroom preparation efforts
Studying and preparing beforehand are two things that students really do have control over when it comes to testing, and they can bring a lot of confidence and peace of mind. Make sure that you go to a test with a well-thought-out review plan to give your students plenty of chances to brush up on knowledge and skills they’ll be assessed on. It’s also very helpful to get your students comfortable with the type of test environment they’ll experience. If tests will be taken online, make sure that your students are familiar with the kind of devices they’ll use and any technology-enhanced item types they’ll encounter. Consider offering extra review opportunities outside of class as well—bagel breakfasts, after-school snack sessions, and open office hours during prep periods are all low-pressure options that anxious students looking for some additional practice will appreciate.
If you’re looking for a program to help support your test preparation efforts to leave students feeling confident and ready for high-stakes exams, check out Edmentum’s Study Island. Aligned to your state’s essential standards and research backed, Study Island helps boost proficiency in math and reading scores through online practice.
2. Ask students where their fear is coming from
Having a better understanding of why a student is experiencing test anxiety or if there are other things exacerbating it can be hugely helpful in figuring out the best way to manage it. Some students will be able to articulate their feelings better than others, so helping students build their emotional vocabulary can be very helpful. Regardless, asking the question will provide valuable clues as to what will help calm a student down.
3. Keep things in perspective
In the grand scheme of things, no single test is going to define a student’s academic career or have that significant of an impact on the student’s future. After all, it’s just one test. As an adult, it’s probably much easier for you to understand this perspective than it is for your students—you’ve had more experience with both failure and success, and you realize that they both happen and know that no matter what, the world keeps turning.
You can share this perspective with your students regularly, offering gentle reminders that every test is just a test and that no test defines how smart, successful, or worthy students are. Remember, though, that adolescent brains function much more in the now and that their prefrontal cortex/rational brain is not fully developed. It may feel like this test is make or break. Students may have home dynamics or internal success pressure that drive the anxiety. Their perception is their reality. In this case, working on coping skills, eliminating all-or-nothing thinking, or listening to and validating their story can go a long way.
4. Empower students with simple strategies to reduce anxiety
For many students with test anxiety, the truly difficult moments don’t hit until they are sitting down to take their test. Basic anxiety-reducing and mindfulness techniques can be a big help for these students. Encourage your learners to practice simple deep breathing exercises, use positive self-talk and mantras, or do seated stretches to release tension once the test is underway. Ask students what coping skills they have, and create a practice during non-stressful times to make those coping skills routine. Create a full class practice of mindfulness the day before the test and a brief relaxation/grounding activity just before.
5. Teach effective test-taking strategies
Test taking is a skill in and of itself. Help calm anxious students’ nerves by making sure that they are familiar with and have confidence in test-taking skills as well as the actual content they’re being tested on. Some of these best practices include reading questions completely before answering them (especially for tricky technology-enhanced item types), skipping over questions that students don’t know in order to manage time, and reviewing answers as time allows.
6. Help students create a study schedule
Some students who struggle with test anxiety spend countless hours studying, reviewing, and cramming in frantic efforts to get ready for exams. While preparation is certainly key, it’s important to be intentional about how to go about it. Try helping your students create study schedules to follow at home. Encourage them to block out reasonable chunks of time during their week, taking into account other homework, extracurricular activities, and leisure time for fun and relaxation.
Find out if there are any barriers or pitfalls to the plan. Do students have the right space and resources? Is it a plan they actually feel they can do? Do they need a buddy to study with? What are the outside pressures on their time like sports, childcare, jobs, etc. Factor those in, as they may be essential to students’ and families’ needs. Having a schedule to follow can help learners manage stress, gain confidence in their preparation efforts, and make more productive use of their study time.
7. Focus on the positives
Students struggling with test anxiety are wrapped up in patterns of negative thinking when it comes to tests. They’re focusing on all of the mistakes they could make, everything that could go wrong, and the ways a bad score could be catastrophic. Shift their focus by helping them reflect on some positive past experiences. Ask them to tell you (or write in a journal) about a test that they did well on. What did they do leading up to that test? How did they feel about it before and after? Getting students to stop and remember their own abilities can go a long way toward breaking the negativity cycle and calm nerves in the process.
8. Practice with the pressure off
For non-high stakes testing, use assessment as an opportunity to celebrate failure and build mastery through the approach that failure can give more information about where the focus for learning needs to be to prepare for a graded or high stakes situation. Creating opportunities where getting something wrong does not have a negative impact, but rather one that helps improve success, can help students feel more prepared.
Learn more about how Edmentum can help support your students as they master their essential standards to succeed on their high-stakes exams.