Take the Stress Out of Tests!
11 Ways to Manage Test Anxiety
Society places a huge emphasis on the importance of tests in school. “You better pass your reading test or you’ll fall behind in 2nd grade.” “You better ace your SATs or you’ll never get into college.” “You better pass The Bar or else you’ll never have a career and will probably end up living under a bridge - but no pressure!” It’s no wonder that millions of students deal with at least some anxiety revolving around tests; but for some students, test anxiety is debilitating, preventing them from being able to show their true knowledge and capabilities.
How does test anxiety impact a student?
Anxiety is our body’s natural response to things we view as threats. Students with test anxiety have an extreme fear of performing poorly on tests, causing them to view exams as threatening. This fear impacts them physically, mentally, and emotionally. As symptoms increase in one of those areas, they tend to get worse in the other two. One thought of, “I know I’m going to fail,” can turn into feeling panicked, nauseous, faint, and short of breath – making test-taking unbearable. If students don’t learn ways to successfully manage test anxiety early on, it can damper their performance during tests throughout their teen and adult lives.
If you are a parent or teacher, here are some ways to help students get a hold on test anxiety:
1. Put tests in perspective
If you suspect your student has anxiety, ask them what they’re afraid of. You will likely find that their fears revolve around a dread of failure or feelings of inadequacy. As an adult, you have a more realistic understanding of the level of influence that tests do and don’t have on your life. Sure, there are high stakes exams out there, but you know that in a few years their test scores won’t be impacting their long-term life success. Share your insight and remind them that a test does not have the power to define their worth, potential, or future.
2. Amp up affirmations
Positive affirmations are encouraging thoughts people say to themselves that help them believe in their ability to succeed. Have your student come up with positive affirmations to replace their negative thoughts about testing. In time, repeating these affirmations will help them reverse negative thought patterns that fuel their anxiety.
Replace, “I’m scared that I won’t remember how to multiply,” with, “I know how to multiply and I’m going to do great.”
Replace, “I know I’m going to fail AP History,” with, “I’ll study and try my best.”
Replace, “I’ll never pass the MCAT – my career is doomed,” with, “I’ve studied just as hard as everyone else and I can do this. Watch out med school, here I come!”
3. Teach muscle relaxation
When we get anxious, our muscles naturally clench up. Teaching relaxation techniques can help students calm their body’s response to anxiety, in turn reducing their emotional distress. One exercise is to clench your fists for 5 seconds, then release them while picturing every muscle in your body letting go of any tension.
4. Make breathing an art form
Another effective tool in reducing anxiety is breathing exercises. Anxiety tends to shorten our breath, fueling the sense of panic that tests can bring on. Have students practice their breathing, focusing on deep inhales and slow exhales.
5. Visualize success
There are two types of visualization that you can teach your students to help them manage test anxiety. First, they can close their eyes and envision a safe, calming place every time they start feeling tense. Second, they can think back on a time they did well on a test and then picture themselves doing great on the upcoming test.
6. Seat strategically
Educators, seat your highly anxious students with low anxiety students. When they see their classmates modeling healthy study habits and a relaxed attitude around test prep, it can gradually help them view tests as less threatening. This also goes for parents; if you’re having kids over for study group, don’t only invite the over-achievers. Make sure to invite peers who are less prone to stress or who have overcome test anxiety themselves to influence the tone of the group.
7. Create a culture of calm
“Be positive” – it’s more than just a blood type, it’s a way of life. Anxiety is infectious, so be careful not to show lots of anxiety around your students’ test performance. If you’re a parent of a child who is excelling and exceeding the performance of others, express pride but try not to suggest any expectation for them to outperform anyone else. Any anxieties or pressures that you convey will likely rub off on them, so do your best to create a positive, supportive, and optimistic environment around testing. Smile and show your sense of humor. Your demeanor during testing will signal to your students that this is not a threatening situation.
8. Prioritize prep work
Students feel much better about test taking if they feel prepared and knowledgeable on the material. Whether you are a teacher or parent, help your students feel prepared by:
Teaching test taking strategies such as skipping difficult questions and coming back to them at the end
Explaining different test formats
Helping them create a study plan to make them feel prepared
Allowing plenty of review time to give students opportunities to ask questions and refresh their memory
9. Assign fun
Although test preparation plays a critical role in alleviating test anxiety, students with test anxiety often burn themselves out with studying before testing even begins. Emphasize to your students that while studying and homework are important for their success, time for fun, relaxation, and recreation are also vital for them to perform at their best.
10. Praise properly
Students with anxiety often grasp the material but draw a blank when the test is in front of them. This is often a result of their fear of incompetency toward testing. You can reduce the likelihood of them freezing up by boosting their confidence leading up to the test. Make sure to praise them for more than just mastery of a subject – encourage students’ progress and efforts before they’ve got a lesson down.
“See! You’re doing great with the first two steps of long division. You’ll have the rest down in no time.”
“You’re really making progress on your review worksheets. You’re on the right track to be well-prepared for the mid-term.”
11. Visit a specialists
Every parent wants school to be an enriching experience for their child. If anxiety is holding your child back from getting the most out of their education, they may qualify for accommodations including additional breaks or extended testing times. Our specialists at Variations Psychology can determine the correct diagnosis for your child, assist you in securing accommodations at for school tests and high stakes exams, and give your child strategies to cope with anxiety symptoms.
Dr. Marta M. Shinn, Ph.D., is an expert in child and educational psychology. Dr. Shinn can help your child learn ways to overcome test anxiety and continue their schooling with confidence.
Cynthia Johnson, LMFT, is a specialist in Parenting and Child Therapy at Variations Psychology. She has years of experience in supporting parents, teens, and children in overcoming challenges such as anxiety, depression, and relationship challenges.
Dr. Christopher J. Sample, Psy.D. specializes in supporting men and teenage boys through life’s transitions including issues related to test anxiety and academic challenges. Dr. Sample provides a comfortable place for men in all walks of life to gain tools for leading fulfilling lives.
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Variations Psychology is a group practice specializing in Child and Family Psychology.
Our specialists provide therapy to infants, children, adolescents, and adults to help them overcome the many challenges they may face throughout the lifespan of a family. We also conduct diagnostic testing of child and adult conditions that may impact the family’s mental health and development (e.g. ADHD, Autism Depression, Anxiety, Learning Disorders, college entrance exams).
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