Help Students Manage Test Anxiety
Originally published August 2017
By Meagan Gillmore
Tests and exams cause anxiety in teachers and students. The growing frequency of standardized tests and ongoing reports about ongoing mental-health issues among children and adolescents make a tense situation even tenser. But teachers don’t need to be licensed psychologists to incorporate strategies that can help everyone succeed—regardless of the grade taught.
Both tests and anxiety are, for better or worse, a part of school life. Each has benefits. Anxiety, in proper amounts, helps increase concentration, memorization and motivation, says Jennifer M. Cooper, an assistant professor in school psychology at National Louis University in Illinois. “Anxiety is really designed to prevent harm,” she says. Trouble arises when anxiety interferes with a person’s ability to function. Students may not be able to avoid stress, but they need to learn how to manage it.
Tests also serve a purpose, Cooper says. They can help both students and teachers determine how well material is understood. The key, says Cooper, is making sure assessments are appropriate.
Teachers are often “first responders” when it comes to recognizing symptoms of anxiety, she says. Anxious students may have a hard time concentrating while taking tests, and could forget information they previously knew. They may fidget, sweat or become nauseous.
Teachers’ close interactions with students make them good people to help prevent anxiety. It begins by teaching students to prepare well for tests. “We sometimes tend to think that these (study) skills are innate, that they don’t need to be taught explicitly,” says Cooper, but students need clear instruction about how to learn well. This includes teaching them how to create and read study guides, how to make appropriate study schedules and create appropriate places to study and encouraging them to study in groups. It also means explaining strategies about how to take tests, like beginning with easier questions, circling key phrases in questions, budgeting enough time for each part of the test and arriving prepared—but not too early. Arriving with too much time before a test could give students more time to get lost in anxious thoughts, says Cooper.
Teachers can also design tests in ways that can reduce stress. This means paying attention to a test’s physical design: not crowding pages with items. It also means creating appropriate questions. Trick questions should be avoided, and using different types of questions can allow students to show what they know in different ways. A humorous item may lighten the mood and help students relax.
The best thing teachers can do is create a positive classroom environment that prioritizes mastery of skills and rewards effort more than performance on assessments, says Cooper. This includes avoiding sarcasm and ridicule, and not inappropriately comparing students to each other. Posting a list of class marks may not be helpful.
Supportive classroom environments matter because not all signs of anxiety are visible. Anxiety often expresses itself through students thinking or saying negative things about themselves, or others. This might be harder to detect—and all students can be prone to this. Some students procrastinate when studying, not because they’re lazy, but because they’re anxious, says Cooper. Students who already have anxiety or attention disorders may be more prone to test-taking anxiety. At the same time, she says, teachers should recognize students who consistently earn high marks may often experience anxiety at well. They may not be able to maintain their performance all the time.
Teachers need to ask students if they see something that could be a sign of anxiety. But they also need to ask for professional help to assist students who may be struggling with anxiety. Schools often become “de facto mental-health centres,” says Cooper. They may be the main place where students receive emotional and social support. Teachers need to reach out to school psychologists and find resources to help them support their students.
Resources may include quizzes to help determine if students are experiencing anxiety. These assessments may ask students how strongly they identify with statements about their ability to perform on tests (“I usually function well on tests,” or “I feel I just can’t make in on test,” for example). They may also ask students about how they think others will respond to their test performance with statements like “If I fail a test, I’m afraid people will consider me worthless,” or “I am worried that failure in tests will embarrass me socially.”
Teachers may encourage students to write positive self-scripts to motivate them and remind them of how they’ve prepared for tests. These combine elements teachers should have addressed before in class: reminders of memory devices and helpful test-taking strategies, like remembering to read each question carefully and not getting stuck on difficult questions. They should also include reminders of how students can relax, like deep breathing, and always have clear, positive, supportive statements like, “This test will go well when you get calm. You can do it,” or “I know this material and I feel good about it.”
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance writer in Toronto, ON.