In the era of high-stakes exams, our students must develop the ability to sit down, focus and perform on exams under timed conditions. I don’t know about you but I personally find test taking to be an incredibly intimidating task. Our students take exams with real implications for their promotion, their future college prospects, their placement in various academic tracks, and for college credit. It is no wonder many develop a tremendous, and often crippling, anxiety around testing.
I decided to tackle test anxiety after the first year I taught Advanced Placement World History to 10th grade students in La Joya, Texas. When students who passed our practice exams ended up getting scores of 2 on the real exam I was baffled – what the heck happened?!? I KNEW they knew the information and had the skills to be successful. “I just got so nervous Miss,” one said. “I couldn’t think straight and when I looked up I’d wasted 30 minutes so I just gave up,” said another. In my reflection and personal research that summer I dug into test anxiety causes and solutions. Here are some ideas I’ve used in my classroom in the 5 years since to help students reach their top performance on high-pressure exams:
- Develop a pre-exam relaxation routine: (see picture above) Before every exam and/or quiz I would lead students through the routine listed on the poster. We began by standing up and stretching in order to 1) get the blood flowing and 2) activate both sides of the brain by doing some cross body reaching and moving. The next part involves success visualization which is a strategy used by world class altheles like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. It involves seeing yourself be successful at whatever task you about about to do (ex. make a free-throw or putt a ball into the hole) and mentally accessing a place of calm (often mocked as “going to your special place” but it works!). Breathing is also a key part of successful relaxation and is closely linked to posture. I teach students to sit up straight and take deep breaths as they take an exam. This way, they are fully oxygenating their brains by breathing with full lung capacity. When you slump or slouch you sort of crumple or fold your lungs which hinders your ability to take a full breath.
- Practice using real testing conditions: If the exam is timed then time almost everything else you do in class. Use the paper, font and headings (if you can) that the exam will use – make your practice exams look as close to possible like the real exam.
- Teach students the procedural part of the exam a least a month before testing day: What will happen in the morning when they arrive at school? What forms will they need to fill out? What does the answer document look like? Often it is during the time right before the exam when students work themselves up – empower them by giving them a very clear idea of what will actually happen before, during and after the exam. This allows students to feel like they know what’s going on even before their knowledge is being tested.
- Give them a strategy for what to do if they become frustrated: I have students stop and breath as well as check their posture. Another good idea is to take a drink of water from a bottle (if allowed) or pop in a mint or piece of gum. Draw a star next to the confusing question and come back to it after a few more questions or at the end.
- Constantly send and reenforce the message “If you work hard, you can do this.” Students need to believe they have what it takes to be successful in order to even attempt to study or learn material. I explicitly teach my belief that the brain is like a muscle – if you work out you get stronger – if you stick with something difficult, you will understand it better in the end. I teach lessons on role models who showed resilience and I cover the classroom in quotes that underscore the importance of working hard. However, it is also important to teach students the difference between trying hard and effective effort.
What do you do to help students with testing anxiety?