Think of a student in a classroom. One who studies the material, does their homework, and is responsible. Now picture them on test day. They have a nervous look on their face and they might be sweating. They stare at the test paper with wide eyes and slowly begin to make marks on the paper.
The student above is suffering from test anxiety. This is a real, and often intense, feeling that can interfere with a student’s concentration and performance. So what can we teachers do to put our students’ minds at ease so they are ready to perform their best?
What is Test Anxiety?
First, let’s examine exactly what test anxiety is. According to kidshealth.org, “Test anxiety is actually a type of performance anxiety — a feeling someone might have in a situation where performance really counts or when the pressure’s on to do well. For example, a person might have performance anxiety just before trying out for the school play, singing a solo on stage, getting into position at the pitcher’s mound, stepping onto the platform in a diving meet, or going into an important interview.”
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, symptoms of test anxiety can be physical, behavioral, cognitive, and emotional.
Common physical symptoms include things such as headaches, diarrhea, rapid breathing, and light-headedness. Or perhaps you’ve seen students act out or begin acting differently before a big test? Test anxiety could be to blame.
What Causes Test Anxiety?
Anxiety is how the body responds to the anticipation of something stressful. When a situation makes someone feel nervous or anxious, their body goes into fight or flight mode. Adrenaline is released, which causes the physical symptoms like a pounding heart, sweating, or rapid breathing.
Anxiety is also caused by worrying about the future or a perception that they won’t have control over a situation. A student with test anxiety might ask, “What if the test is too hard?” or “What if I forget everything I know?”. A student might fear failing or worry about being embarrassed.
Some level of anxiety is normal, and is to be expected. In fact, I believe that most students feel some level of test anxiety prior to a big test. Sometimes it’s obvious, and sometimes it’s not. In any case, it’s important to make sure that every student has the coping skills necessary to keep their anxiety at a manageable level.
How Can We Help?
Testing is (unfortunately) a large part of the school experience. Our students who experience testing anxiety will need to learn coping skills to be able to deal with every test and assessment that comes their way. Using some of the strategies mentioned below, our students can ease their worry and keep their anxiety at a manageable level.
Explicitly Talk About Test Anxiety: If we address the issue head-on with our students, we take away some of the fear, shame, and doubt that goes along with it. We are also letting our students know that they are not alone and we are here for them.
Reading books about test anxiety can also help children understand what they are feeling and how to handle it. (See the list of recommended picture books at the end of this post.)
Before a test or several times throughout they year, talk about test anxiety (what it looks like, sounds like, feels like) and give them practical strategies to use to cope.
Give them Practical Strategies to Use to Cope: (See what I did there?) Give your students the tools they need to manage their anxiety. Some ideas they can try are:
- studying the material beforehand so they are prepared
- ask for help when needed
- take deep breathes or meditate immediately before a test
- develop good test-taking strategies (read each question carefully, double check your answers, eliminate distractions, etc.)
- stay healthy by getting enough sleep before a test and eating healthy foods
- maintain positive self-talk. Don’t talk negatively to yourself about your preparation, abilities, or testing history.
Help Them Prepare: Let your students know when a test is coming. If it’s appropriate, have review sessions in school so they can practice the material in a relaxed environment.
SPEAK Up Acronym: Teach your students this acronym when they are about to take a test. It can help them remember what to do if they feel nervous or anxious.
If you would like to get your own SPEAK Up Acronym Printable for free, we can email it to you, or you can download it from the ‘Files’ section of our Create-abilities Teacher Community Facebook Group. If you haven’t joined the group yet, it’s a very active community of thousands of teachers that love to share their best ideas! It’s also a great way to stay up-to-speed on everything Create-abilities, including product announcements, sales, freebies, live broadcasts, giveaways, and more!
Recommended Books for Test Anxiety
Picture books are a powerful way to help students manage their anxiety. Here are some of my favorites:
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this book. Mrs. Hartwell helps her students prepare for a test in every way. After realizing they are nervous, she knows she must teach them how to relax.
This book gives kids tools they can use to calm their worries and manage their anxiety. It’s very child-friendly and engaging.
This books is a very funny way to start discussing testing in schools. It’s written from the perspective of the students in her class as they observe their teacher stressing over the end of year testing. It is very, very funny.
Another good read by Julia Cook. It’s about a girl who stresses out so much about testing that she forms her own Anti-Testing Society. Her teacher then helps her by giving her 12 testing strategies to use.
This books is great because it focuses on testing anxiety in one area: math. Ethan feels good about every subject but math, and must learn how to relax so he can focus and manage his anxiety.
Another way to help ease testing anxiety is to are your students with the tools they need to succeed. Read more about Testing Strategies That Work here.