Using Classroom Culture, Test-Taking Skills, and Mindfulness to Overcome Test-Season Stress

Apr 05, 2024
Overcome test season stress Edmentum article

Testing season comes and goes every school year, and each year, it brings a variety of emotions and challenges for both educators and students. This year, many educators are feeling an increased sense of pressure as a result of some of the uncertain and disruptive school years of instruction students have endured lately. To help you calm fraying nerves and ensure that students are successful on high-stakes exams, we’ve put together our favorite tips on cultivating a productive classroom environment, teaching effective test-taking strategies, and leveraging mindfulness as your test-prep secret weapon.

Set the Tone for Testing Success

Your students are always playing “follow the leader,” even when they don’t realize it. As an educator, you spend a lot of time with your class, and students will naturally look to you as a model for behavior. If you let stress get the best of you during standardized testing season, there’s a good chance your students will mirror that stress. Here are four ways to make your classroom (whether it is virtual or in person) a low(er)-stress environment.

1. Build trust

Every educator knows that relationships are at the core of teaching and learning. By focusing on those close relationships with your students throughout the school year, you’ll build up trust that can make testing season a much smoother time of year. Make sure that students are clear on classroom expectations and avoid surprising them with unexpected quizzes or assignments. When students know they can count on you and can go to you with problems, those are the first steps toward a positive classroom environment.

2. Admit that test stress can be a problem

Test anxiety (especially this year) is a real thing, and it’s OK to talk about it with your students. Ask students how they’re feeling about upcoming exams and acknowledge your own stress. Keep in mind that test anxiety won’t look the same in any two students, so make sure that you’re familiar with all the symptoms. Keep an eye out for physical or behavioral signs and take the time to understand the sources of different students’ stress. It’s also beneficial to make it a priority to communicate with classroom families and caregivers and other school staff about test anxiety and the impact it has on student performance during standardized testing. The more support you can offer students, the better their exams will go.

3. Keep things in perspective

In the grand scheme of things, no single test is going to define students’ academic careers or have that significant of an impact on their future. After all, it’s just one test. As an adult with years of experience on the roller coaster of life, chances are you can grasp this reality more easily than your students. So, make it a priority to share this perspective with your students regularly, and offer plenty of gentle reminders that no test defines how smart, successful, or worthy they are. It may also be helpful to acknowledge how proud students should feel that they have continued to make progress during school years like no one has ever experienced before.

4. Maintain positivity

A little positive thinking can go a long way. Instead of focusing on all the material that still needs to be reviewed (or how challenging this school year has been), remind your students that you believe in their abilities and simply encourage them to put forth their best effort. As test days approach, keep the mood light in your classroom by infusing fun into review exercises, celebrating students’ hard work, and making time to ask students about things not related to school.

Looking for more tips on creating a supportive classroom environment? Take a look at this article on The Key to Testing Season: Your School Culture.

Focus on Effective Test-Taking Strategies

Test taking is, without a doubt, a skill that can be learned. And by treating it as such in your classroom, you can help students overcome self-doubts and do their best when testing day arrives. Make time in your test-prep schedule to focus on these test-taking strategies in addition to standard content review.

  • Work with students to build a personal study schedule
  • Familiarize students with the format of the test, including technology-enhanced item types they will encounter
  • Help students break down complicated questions or problems into discrete tasks
  • Introduce mnemonic devices as a way to help students remember terms and concepts
  • Coach students to read each question entirely before answering
  • Focus on time management, and encourage students to skip over questions they don’t understand and return to them at the end of the test as time allows

Borrow from Mindfulness Approaches

This almost certainly is not the first time you’ve heard about the value of mindfulness when it comes to managing stress. Simple strategies, both while you’re preparing for tests with students in the classroom and when students are actually taking their exams, can go a long way toward ensuring that students are able to truly demonstrate their knowledge. Here are six of our favorite mindfulness strategies to start with.

1. Create a “calm down spot”

Designate a quiet corner in your classroom where students can go when they need to take a few moments to calm their anxiety. Make sure that your “calm down spot” has comfy seating, and stock it with sensory items like fidget spinners, stress balls, and headphones for calming music. You can also hang up posters with breathing exercises or keep a stack of reflection sheets for students to journal about their feelings. If your students are learning virtually from home, suggest to them and their families that they make their own “calm down spot” where they can excuse themselves if they need a moment.

2. Teach students how to breathe mindfully

Focusing on breath is so simple and so effective. Teach students some basic mindful breathing exercises that they can use anytime, anywhere (including during tests) to help them calm down and be more present. Even having students simply place a hand on their belly to observe how it expands and contracts with their breath can have a significant calming effect.

3. Lead guided meditations

Guided meditation can be a great tool to help students calm down and focus on the task at hand. Try leading your students in a simple, short (5- to 10-minute) guided meditation to kick off test review sessions—you can even incorporate some visualizations of what success on their upcoming test will feel like.

4. Encourage mindful coloring

Not every moment of the school day needs to be dedicated to intentional review and test preparation. Coloring, especially using mandalas and other pattern sheets, can be a great way to give students a mental break, decrease test anxiety, and improve focus.

5. Come up with a mantra

We all have a continuous stream of self-talk, and that inner monologue can have a huge effect on stress levels. Working with your students to come up with a classwide or personal mantra to use during their test can be a great approach to help students manage their self-talk, maintain that critical positive attitude, and stay focused.

6. Give yoga a try

Humans aren’t designed for endless hours of sitting at desks—so is it any surprise that students tend to get anxious and fidgety in the classroom? Try incorporating movement into your classroom routine when preparing for tests to give students a much-needed break with simple yoga poses. Plus, yoga is a great way for students to tap into the calming power of their own breathing.

Tips to avoid burnout

Vary your instructional methods

Now is the time for everyone to put on differentiation hats. A classroom style built around passive listening during lectures or videos only adds to the monotony of testing season. The right activity after a major test can rejuvenate minds rather than sap them of dwindling energy. Speaking of which . . .

Lay off the movies

Since the dawn of the filmstrip, teachers have relied on movies to give a much-deserved rest to students who have just slogged through a big test. Although students may say all they want to do is zone out, passive movie watching isn’t the best idea. Instead, break out your bag of fun educational activities, and give your students input in how they spend their time between testing periods. You may be surprised at how much they gravitate toward a fun game, even when they thought they had no more brain cells left to donate.

Be systematic in your studying

As testing season rolls on, every cram session takes a toll on student performance. If students are trying to stuff their minds with last-minute knowledge both at school and at home, something has to give. This busy time is when your organizational skills become golden. Schedule the intervening periods between tests down to the minute so that students know what to expect in your class and understand how you will keep everything to a manageable pace. You’ll spend a lot of time printing calendars and writing on the board, but the students will thank you.

Change the environment

Any novelty serves as an energetic pulse to the brain, and one of the easiest ways to produce those new sensations is to change the class. Move furniture around, or take the students outside to study if the weather is nice. The mind learns better if it can recall the context in which it absorbed new information, so being able to remember a certain fact because it was studied outside under a tree can help.

Looking for more ideas to bring calmness to class? Check out this blog post on three easy ways to bring mindfulness to the classroom.

Ready to take a real deep dive into all things related to testing season? Check out Edmentum’s Test Prep Toolkit. Whether you’re looking for more stress-busting strategies, test day success, or general review-session ideas, we have you covered. 

This post was originally published in March 2019 and has been updated.

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