Everyone can remember feeling anxious about tests in school, whether it was anticipating an upcoming test or waiting for your grade afterward. This is especially true of standardized testing, but it can occur with any form of summative assessment. The pressures of perfectionism and associating academic achievement with personal worth can worsen test anxiety in many students.
It’s a delicate balance for teachers. We want to encourage excellence in our students, but pushing them too far when it comes to academics, without nurturing the students themselves, can be disastrous. So how can you manage test anxiety in your classroom?
Symptoms and Causes of Test Anxiety
Though most students experience some degree of nervousness about tests, test anxiety can vary in intensity and looks different from student to student. Some students may be anxious about the test in the days leading up to it, and might agonize over their study materials. Others might feel anxiety long after they turn in the test, worried about what their grade might be. They can also experience a wide range of symptoms, from physical to emotional and behavioral.
Physical Symptoms of Test Anxiety
- Excessive sweating
- Lightheadedness or faint feelings
- Panic attacks
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
If the student has never experienced a panic attack before, it’s important to know what one looks like. As with symptoms of test anxiety in general, the problem is that panic attacks can look different depending on the student. However, they are always characterized by a sharp, intense fear or anxiety, and are often accompanied by rapid heartbeats that can sometimes feel as though the student is having a heart attack. This differs from anxiety attacks, which can last for days or even weeks at a time, with milder symptoms like chest pain, headaches, or stomachaches.
Emotional Symptoms of Test Anxiety
- Feelings of fear, helplessness, disappointment, and stress
- Negative thoughts and fixation on past performances
- Worry about the future
- Racing thoughts or mind-blanking
Because students so often tie their worth to their academic achievements, they might fear that a poor performance on a test reflects poorly on them as a person. Students may struggle with feelings of inadequacy or worry for their future in the midst of test anxiety. This emotional turmoil can also lead to behavioral symptoms.
Behavioral/Cognitive Symptoms of Test Anxiety
- Difficulty concentrating
- Negative thoughts or self-image
- Comparing yourself to others
Though procrastination is often seen as laziness, it is usually a symptom of anxiety or perfectionism. Students fear failure so much that they avoid beginning homework and other tasks or may struggle to finish them. The best way to cure procrastination is to tackle the underlying anxiety.
Causes of Test Anxiety
To some degree, we encourage a fear of failure in an academic setting. A healthy amount of pressure can help motivate students to succeed. Too much focus on that fear of failure, however, can do more harm than good. It may lead students to be so fearful of the consequences of failure — internal or external — that they struggle to focus when attempting to prepare for the test or retain information. Often, there’s even a certain grade that a student needs for a particular test in order to pass the class, which can put immense pressure on students who fear failure.
This is especially true if students have had a history of poor test performance. A bad grade on a previous test can heighten anxiety about the next test. It’s important to remind students that poor test performances, while important to overcome, are not the end of the world and that they should focus on the present, not dwell on the past.
As we mentioned when discussing behavioral symptoms of test anxiety, procrastination is often a symptom of perfectionism. When students are taught to conflate their academic success with their personal worth, they can fall into perfectionism: a need to do everything perfectly, or at least exceptionally. Perfectionists tend to be intensely self-critical when they fall short of their high standards. They may procrastinate or slack off, feeling that if they can’t do something right, they shouldn’t try at all. It’s important to emphasize that mistakes are a part of learning, and necessary for improving.
Understanding the Psychology of Test Anxiety
The University of New Mexico has conducted studies on test anxiety and the psychology behind it. In doing so, they came to the following conclusions:
- Test anxiety is a learned behavior. Students don’t begin their academic career anxious about every test that comes up. This is often conditioned due to external pressures.
- The association of good grades and personal worth causes test anxiety. If a student sees their grades as the whole of their worth as a person, rather than simply one aspect of their lives, naturally they’ll be more anxious about tests.
- Test anxiety can come from a feeling of a lack of control. This is the same with just about any level of anxiety. As people, we worry over the things we can’t control. The more something feels out of control, the more anxious we feel. If students don’t feel capable of doing well on the test, this can intensify their test anxiety.
- Test anxiety can be caused by a teacher embarrassing a student. Remember that students are still learning and be patient with them. If a student feels singled out or mocked by their teacher, this will only add to their test anxiety.
- Being placed into a course above your level can cause test anxiety. It’s important to make sure that students aren’t placed into a class that’s not right for them. If a student is in an AP class and shouldn’t be, their grades and their mental wellbeing will suffer.
- Test anxiety develops from fear of alienation from parents, family, or friends due to poor grades. Parents and guardians want to encourage their child to succeed, but if their child feels that their parents will reject them for poor grades, this type of “encouragement” will do more harm than good.
- Timed tests and the fear of not finishing can cause anxiety, even if the student’s capable of answering all the questions. Timed tests are a bane for many students, as the limited nature significantly increases the pressure put on the test, especially when it has a high impact on the student’s overall grade.
Offsetting Test Anxiety
So what’s the solution? How can teachers motivate their students to put in the effort and perform well in school without overwhelming them and causing test anxiety? The Mayo Clinic has offered a list of strategies for students to lessen their test anxiety. Here, we can turn these into suggestions for teachers who want to help.
- Teach students to study more efficiently. Are your students skimming over the selected reading until their eyes glaze over, not retaining the material? Teach them effective ways to study smart, not hard, and retain the information they need. Some of this can include encouraging them to study earlier in the day, and to have a dedicated study space, as this can help them focus and recall information.
- Have a pre-test routine. Students are responsible for studying on their own in large part, but teachers can also give reviews leading up to the test to help students retain the information they need. While your students work on their pre-test routine, work on your own. Incorporate study and review times as well as short breaks where students can focus on something less stressful.
- Be available to your students. Make sure that your students know they can come to you if they have any questions or concerns, or even if they’re simply feeling anxious about the upcoming test. It’s important as an educator to know where your students are emotionally, and it’s important for your students to know you’re a trusted ally.
- Teach relaxation techniques. Remember the point about offering short breaks as part of your pre-test routine? One way to do this is by teaching your students some relaxation techniques. Go through deep-breathing exercises, light stretches, and opportunities to envision a positive outcome to keep students from becoming too tense.
- Encourage exercise and plenty of sleep. Studying is good, but not if students cram in hours of studying without any rest. Encourage them to get up and move around or take a walk when studying, and remind them that sleep is an important part of test preparation.
- Be sensitive to learning disabilities. Teachers know that not all students learn in the same way. If you have a student with a learning disability, be careful that your suggestions for studying or your test preparation plans don’t exclude them. Find a way to be accessible to them.
- Suggest students speak to a counselor. A teacher can’t do it all. If you notice that some of your students are especially struggling with test anxiety, recommend that they speak with a guidance counselor who can help them manage it.