Don’t get testy! Take a deep breath. You can do this!
Test anxiety isn’t just for students.
It can hit teachers, too.
Those troubling questions are enough to boggle an already taxed mind. Have I properly prepared my students for their tests? Do they know the content? Do they know the format? The rules?
It’s enough to drive a teacher to . . . well, to wonder if they have done enough.
If you are a teacher and you are suffering this kind of anxiety, take a deep breath and focus on the answers that you know, deep down, are the reality. You have done your best. You know your subject area and you have passed that knowledge on to your students. If you have done your job fully, you have also prepared them with the mechanics of how best to take the test.
So let’s address the issue of how to properly prepare your students to minimize test anxiety.
Firstly, let’s back up and mention that it’s OK to tell your students that a little bit of test anxiety is natural and sometimes it is actually helpful.
It’s like being an actor, ready to perform a role in a play. You have learned the lines, practiced the moves across the stage, you know your cue lines, your entrances and exits. Do you still feel a little bit anxious? Let’s hope so. Most experienced and successful actors, even professionals, will say those butterflies help focus their minds to do a good job; without them, a nonchalant actor is prone to be overconfident and more likely to mess up.
Testing is the same. It’s unlikely that it’s ever going to be fun, so as a teacher try to address what you can with your students.
Let’s divide our students into two types: Those who suffer from a form of anxiety that paralyzes them or affects them physically, and those who don’t suffer from debilitating anxiety, but still need to focus.
For the student with true anxiety that’s akin to a medical condition, let’s examine the symptoms and some strategies to overcome them.
Several resources exist to help, offered by educational professionals who have studied the phenomenon.
The Butte College Learning Center in Oroville, California, has produced some excellent tips that you can access online (see below). Their studies focus, in part, on self-talk techniques in which students turn negative thoughts into positives.
While that might not work for everyone, the useful learning technique has been employed successfully in weight-loss, self-esteem building, and athletic training programs. How many times have you watched an Olympic medalist interviewed on TV? Just about all describe how they talk to themselves before they compete.
The Educational Testing Service (ETS) of Princeton, New Jersey, is one of the largest creators of test materials in the world. It has developed a program called Praxis, which is designed to identify elements of preparation, organization, and practice that can make potential test-takers more familiar with the process. Its leaders firmly believe in the philosophy that test anxiety is a reality, and not something that can be “cured” simply by getting a good eight hours of sleep the night before the test.
It, too, has a significant segment on “self-talk” strategies.
Its educators identify mind and body symptoms that point to high anxiety levels. Negative or racing thoughts, worries about past performance, or the implications of failure, can all contribute to problems that distract the mind from focusing on the task at hand. More visible and apparent are physical symptoms in a student’s body. These may be nausea, cramps, faintness, sweating, headache, dry mouth, increased breathing rate, a fast heartbeat, and tense muscles. These body issues can be addressed with breathing techniques, stretching, and tension-relief exercises.
The ETS suggests other strategies that are worth highlighting:
- overcoming fear by taking out the surprise element — this involves finding out the format, style, and expectations of the test by asking ahead of time. How many questions, how much time, what format (multiple choice, essay?) and so on; that’s where practice tests come in — skip them at your peril;
- setting a schedule to study a topic area so you know the material; this involves preparation and dedication, but has a significant payoff in confidence when test day arrives;
- be alert to avoid buying into “myths” about tests; for example, there are no trick questions and no discernible patterns of answers.
For students who don’t exhibit serious symptoms, but still need to properly focus on the challenge ahead, here are some practical tips. Few will sound new, but they bear repeating.
Get plenty of rest during the night before. Last-minute cramming for half the night means a tired student when test day dawns.
On the day of the test:
- Eat breakfast;
- Go to the bathroom;
- Arrive at school early, allowing plenty of time to adjust to any changes;
- Dress in layers in case the testing room is too hot or too cold, and wear comfortable shoes;
- Bring the required materials, pens, pencils, erasers, or any other allowed items — and have a spare of each; keep a few tissues or a handkerchief in your pocket;
- If other students appear stressed, avoid them; go to an area to be quiet before the test begins;
- Lock your phone and everything you don’t need in your locker; wear a wrist watch so you know how much time you have; taking out your phone to check the time will appear as if you are cheating!
- Do a little stretching exercise ahead of time— don’t wear yourself out, but remember you will be sitting for a long while;
- Unless you have been assigned seats, arrive early, choose a place close to the front, away from any draughts, open windows, or doors, and get settled with enough room to sit comfortably before the test begins.
And now to work.
Make sure you follow the instructions on how to mark the test with your identity. It is no good scoring 100 percent on a test but not attaching your name to it.
Read the rubric. If the test asks you to choose and complete four out of six questions in the allotted time, then do that — don’t do all six.
Read the full question. Sometimes it will signal a path to the answer.
Get a good pace going. That does not mean rushing, but do make good use of all your time. For some students, it will mean answering short-answer or multiple-choice questions first before progressing to the essay portion. In some test-takers, that action sometimes instills a feeling of accomplishment along the way.
Remember that if you are having difficulty with multiple-choice questions, use the common strategy of eliminating answers that are obviously wrong then reviewing what is left. Sometimes that helps.
Skip the difficult questions for a while, answer the questions you do know, and return to the others if you have time later. If you are running out of time, go ahead and mark any answer.
Relax and celebrate. Talking over the test with friends isn’t always the best thing to do immediately you head to the buses. It’s natural, but let’s face it, everyone always seems to have done better than you. If you have sports or band practice at the end of a testing day, switch your focus and put in an especially hard effort. Your coach or director will know exactly what is going on. If you have a track meet or a sports game that afternoon, run faster or hit the ball harder than you have ever done before.
Lastly, manage your parents. Prepare your students for when they arrive home. Let’s face it, the first question parents will ask when a student gets home is, “How did the test go?” They are incapable of restraining themselves! Accept that, have your students answer briefly and reasonably honestly. If parents persist, suggest to your students that they thank them for their concern, tell them they have had a stressful day but that the student did his/her best.