I distinctly remember one terrible part of my unremarkable years of playing softball. During practice, I could hit the ball far enough for at least a base hit. Then -- the game. As soon as I was up to bat, I would freeze up and choke, barely hitting the ball to the pitcher. I would have been a surefire out if it weren’t for the fact that I was so short that I had a very narrow strike zone and got walked a lot. I now know that I suffered from performance anxiety, but at the time I was devastated until I finally convinced my father that I should quit playing. I can still recall the relief at never having to bat in a game again.
Now that I teach, I recognize the signs of performance anxiety in my middle-school students in one specific area -- test anxiety. While it’s true that a certain amount of trepidation and doubt are normal before any high-stakes event, their anxiety borders on debilitating. They experience the same feelings I had while standing in the batter’s box: sweaty hands, rapid heartbeat, nervous fidgeting, light-headedness and a suddenly blank mind.
When students are anxious during tests, they are less likely to perform up to their academic potential. They often end up doing poorly, which starts a cycle of self-doubt and disappointment. Fortunately, there are many ways that classroom teachers can help ease test anxiety by addressing the needs of the whole child.
Optimizing the physical environment on test day will go a long way in helping students be able to focus on the task at hand.
- This is not the day to try out a completely new seating arrangement or change out posters on the wall. The more that the classroom looks like the conditions in which the material was taught, the better.
- Try to minimize distractions and keep the classroom as calm and quiet as possible. When a child is already anxious, they are more likely to be distracted by the slightest noise or movement.
- Allow the students to spread out the seats, if possible, so that they may concentrate on what’s on their desk and not their neighbor’s.
- Consider supplying some sort of fidget toy. Many soft, quiet “touchable” toys can be found at a dollar store or even homemade. Displacing some of that physical energy can help ease some psychological discomfort.
Because adolescents are social beings and greatly affected by the opinion of their peers, teachers need to make all efforts to protect their fragile sense of self.
- Share their grades with them privately. Grades should never be a competition. Posting grades (even if you don’t use student names) is a destructive practice. Even if you don’t think they will figure out whose grade is whose, they will. And it can be hurtful.
- It is not necessary to share the grade breakdown either for the same reasons as above. It does nothing but rub it in to the student who scored poorly.
- One practice I have used in all my years of teaching that has made the most difference is to not allow any student to get up to hand in their tests when finished. Seeing their peers get up to turn in a paper early only increases their sense of urgency if they are already petrified of failing. Instead, I tell every student to turn their paper over at their desk and read silently (I teach English and they all have a choice reading book). When I’ve taught other subjects, I have put some sort of puzzle or activity on the back for them to do while others finish. This practice has received more thanks from students and parents than almost any other thing I do.
A few simple ideas can help lessen the cognitive load that is distracting them from the material they are trying to recall or formulate.
- My school places a large calendar for each grade in the staff lounge. An electronic calendar works great too. All the teachers in that grade record tests, project due dates, and quizzes on it so that they can monitor the schedule for overload. This way, a student will never experience the nightmare of three tests in one day or the like.
- As a regular practice, on non-test days, teachers can give students practical test-taking tips as well as sample questions so that they feel more comfortable with the format on test day.
- Consider flexible time limits or breaking the test into parts so that students who are already anxious don’t feel rushed and tempted to guess.
- A pet peeve of mine is teachers who put unfair or trick questions on a test to “separate the As from the Bs” or test over material not covered in class. A test is supposed to assess their understanding of the material they learned, not some sort of magical thinking.
Most importantly, make all attempts to help kids deal with the intense, possibly debilitating, emotions causing their minds to go blank.
- Blowing the significance of the test out of proportion causes text anxiety for some. Very few classroom tests are do-or-die. At least they shouldn’t be. Helping the students gain some perspective about this one test’s place in the overall scheme allows them to regain some logical thinking.
- Give as much notice as possible before the test. Even though not all of your students will need this courtesy, it is invaluable to those who do. Many students have incredibly busy lives outside of school and need to by hyper organized to succeed. Last-second notice is unfair.
- Teach them a simple deep breathing or meditating technique and have all students begin each test with this practice.
- Discuss test anxiety as a real entity and have students share strategies they have used on their own to help cope. They may have ideas you never thought of and it also helps normalize their emotions by realizing they are not alone.
- It doesn’t hurt for you to be their cheerleader before the test. Let them know that you have confidence in them and that they have studied the material. They trust your guidance and a little confidence boost may be all some of them need.
I am sure many teachers have their own experiences with performance anxiety such as I had with softball. The difference is that this source of student anxiety is not an extracurricular activity -- it is not going away. The reality is that we live in a data and test-driven society. Since the ultimate goal of testing is to measure student understanding of the material, reducing anxiety will result in a more reliable assessment. Furthermore, teachers will be doing a great service in helping students deal with this issue now before the tests become high-stakes. None of the techniques suggested above are overly complicated, but if they can alleviate even a little bit of test stress, it will be time well spent.
Cheryl Mizerny is a recent Editor’s Choice Content Award winner. She is a veteran educator with over 20 years experience. She began her career in special education, became a teacher consultant and adjunct professor of educational psychology, and currently teaches sixth-grade English in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She writes a blog about student motivation and engagement at The Accidental English Teacher.
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