How Teachers Can Help Students Cope with Test Anxiety

Friday, January 20, 2017 -- Sarah Cornelius

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 high-stakes 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 state exams every year 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 Anxiety and Depression Association of America officially 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 a range of physical symptoms, from simple “butterflies in the stomach”, to more serious symptoms including headache, nausea, and light-headedness, as well as emotional and cognitive symptoms like feelings of helplessness and difficulty concentrating. For students with serious test-anxiety, they often experience these symptoms even if they’ve worked hard to prepare for the test and know the material—they’ll simply freeze or blank once the test is in front of them.

Of course, no teacher or parent wants to see a student stressed out to this extent over any single test. So, what can educators do to help kids manage test anxiety, and take the fear out of testing day? Here are seven of our favorite tips:

1. Ask students where their fear is coming from

Having a better understanding of why a student is experiencing test anxiety 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, but regardless, asking the question will provide valuable clues as to what will help calm a student down.

2. 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 their 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, realize they both happen, and know that no matter what, the world keeps turning. Share this perspective with your students regularly, offering gentle reminders that every test is just a test, and no test defines how smart, successful, or worthy they are.

3. 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 you go in to testing season 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 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, or open office hours during prep periods are all low-pressure options that anxious students looking for some additional practice will appreciate.

Check out Edmentum’s Study Island to help your students practice state-standards aligned math, ELA, science, and social studies content while getting comfortable with technology-enhanced item types!

4. Teach effective test-taking strategies

Test taking is a skill in and of itself. Help calm anxious students’ nerves by making sure 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.

5. 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 how catastrophic a bad score could be. Shift their focus by helping them reflect on some positive past experiences. Ask them to tell you (or 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 a student to stop and remember their own abilities can go a long way toward breaking the negativity cycle—and calm nerves in the process.

6. Empower students with simple strategies to reduce anxiety

For many students with test anxiety, the truly difficult moments don’t hit until they’ve sat down to take their test. Basic anxiety-reducing 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.

7. 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 blocks of time during their week, taking in to account other homework, extracurricular activities, and time for fun and relaxation. Having a schedule to follow can help kids manage stress, feel confident in their preparation efforts, and make more productive use of their study time.

Want more strategies to help your students keep anxiety at bay and have a successful testing season? Take a look at this great collection of resources on test anxiety from TeensHealth!

Interested in learning more about how Edmentum can help your students practice the skills they’ll need to succeed on high-stakes exams? Check out our data-driven standards mastery and formative assessment solution, Study Island