How to Help Students with Test Anxiety

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Many students have test anxiety, stressing so much over tests and quizzes that they can't be at their best. In this lesson, we will discuss ways to reduce that anxiety and create an effective emotional environment for testing.

What is Test Anxiety?

Nearly every teacher sees it happen. The students give you all the right answers in the discussion, perform well in the exercises, and seem to have a perfect understanding of the information you've presented. Then you give them the test, and they bomb it. You watch them mess up on answers that you know should be easy for them. They sweat, struggle, and do their best, but they just can't seem to pass that test.

Test anxiety is a crippling fear of failure in response to an internal feeling of inadequacy. It happens when the student's view of tests includes extreme feelings of worry and self-doubt. It can very uncomfortable for students and can significantly impact their exam performance. In this lesson we will explore ways to reduce that anxiety and give the students their best chance at performing well on their tests.

What Causes Test Anxiety?

There are many reasons that a student might feel that he or she is going to do badly on a test. Sometimes, parents put a great deal of pressure on the students. Other times, the students have personal issues that are interfering with their learning. With some students, the typical structure of a test is a problem. In any case, the fear builds up, causing the student to go into 'fight or flight' mode. This is great when you're facing physical danger, but not so good when you need to relax and focus. In addition, test anxiety can be made much worse by the student's physical condition. Caffeine, illness, hunger, etc. can cause students to experience negative emotions and have a hard time concentrating.

There are many negative cognitive (thought-based) and affective (emotion-based) effects related to test anxiety.

  • Difficulty remembering and/or concentrating
  • Anxious, negative, and rapid or distracting thoughts
  • Moodiness, worrying, and poor attitude
  • Irritability, short temper, and agitation
  • Feeling overwhelmed, isolated, and/or depressed

In extreme cases, severe test anxiety can also cause physical symptoms. As a teacher, you may be tempted to disregard student complaints like the ones below, but they are valid physical responses to stress.

  • Random aches and pains
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Nausea or dizziness
  • Frequent illness

There are many possible behavioral responses to stress in a student's life including some very destructive ones.

  • Bad nutritional habits (eating too much, too little, or stress-relieving snack foods)
  • Putting off responsibilities or avoiding them altogether
  • Using chemicals (such as cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol) to relax
  • Nervous habits (such as nail biting, pacing, twitching, etc.)
  • Rebellion, escape, and release activities, including partying, excitement-seeking behavior, and sexual encounters

So what can you do? You obviously can't control every aspect of your students' lives, but you certainly don't have to feel helpless. You and your fellow teachers are probably getting at least as much effective 'face time' as any other person in the students' lives. You really do have the chance to make a difference.

How do You Reduce Test Anxiety?

Each of the following can help your students reduce test anxiety.

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