Conquering Test Anxiety: Helping Students Find Calm on Exam Day

Tests are a normal part of teaching and learning, but that doesn’t make them easy. In fact, many students suffer from test-related stress and anxiety. This common condition can make it difficult for them to focus and perform well on tests, even if they know the material. 

Fortunately, teachers can do their part to ensure that all students have a chance to succeed. Here are a few ways teachers can help cultivate calm and focus on the day of a big test.

Understanding and Empathizing with Test Anxiety 

Test anxiety may look and feel different from student to student. For some, it can be associated with racing thoughts, fear, anger and/or an inability to concentrate. It might also manifest physically and cause nausea, headache, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, lightheadedness and increased heartbeat, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

When you do hear or see signs of anxiety in students, it’s important to intervene and offer support when necessary. Mindful Schools, an organization which helps bring mindfulness to students, emphasizes the importance of empathizing with the student experience — especially when they have anxiety.

“When a 4th grader reports that she felt she ‘was going to die’ from test anxiety, she’s telling the truth. The responses of her autonomic nervous system are the same whether she’s taking a math test or sensing actual physical danger.”

Test anxiety is also something that can worsen over time. It can be a result of past experiences, meaning that students learn to associate test-taking with stressful emotions, writes educational consultant Kendra Cherry. “Test anxiety can also become a vicious cycle. After experiencing anxiety during one exam, students may become so fearful about it happening again that they actually become even more anxious during the next exam,” she explains.

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How Mindfulness and Breathing Can Help

We’ve touched upon the importance of using mindfulness in the classroom as a tool for helping students feel safe, relaxed and comfortable. Deep breathing has been proven to quell anxiety, and has a direct impact on brain activity, says Stanford University biochemistry professor Mark Krasnow

“This liaison to the rest of the brain means that if we can slow breathing down, these neurons then don’t signal the arousal center, and don’t hyperactivate the brain. So you can calm your breathing and also calm your mind,” he explains.

Breathing is an important practice for calming the mind because it calms down the sympathetic nervous system. This is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, which is what causes people to feel shaky and scared before a big event, such as a test. Slow, steady breathing helps the body engage the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of the body in control of a relax and rest response, writes McKenna Princing at the University of Washington’s Right as Rain. Since only one nervous system can be actively engaged at the same time, mindful breathing ensures that the calming system takes over.

When it comes to taking tests, mindfulness practices can equip students to overcome their own fears and anxieties. This was demonstrated in an elementary school study on a mindful awareness training program conducted by InnerExplorer cofounder Laura S. Bakosh, Ph.D. and fellow researchers.

“The study demonstrates that a 10-minute-per-day, fully automated program significantly enhances students’ quarterly grades in reading and science,” they write.

This was the first empirical study on how a mindfulness-based social and emotional learning program could benefit student outcomes. Findings suggest many more opportunities for exploring the link between mindfulness, test anxiety and performance. Moreover, it shows teachers that there are a number of ways to share mindful practices and help students find calm.

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Lessons and Practices to Ease Test Anxiety

Teaching students how to tune into their breathing can help them calm down and find focus for a test, says Laurie Grossman at Teaching Tolerance. Small, mindful actions, like putting a hand on their belly and feeling it rise and fall with an inhale and exhale, can ground students before an exam. Similarly, you might ask them to note the rise and fall of their shoulders as they breathe in and out. 

Many students worry about tests because they fear they’re going to fail. Teachers can do their part to reduce this fear by ensuring that students see themselves as successful before the test, says teacher Dan Henderson, author of “That’s Special: A Survival Guide To Teaching.”

“It is beneficial for the student to see a correct answer on a test and praise their work. When I create a practice test, I make at least my first two questions a review of the standards. All of my students get these first few questions correct,” he explains.

Henderson recommends providing a short practice test a few weeks before an upcoming test. It should involve 10 questions or less and have a variety of questions. This exercise can help students feel more confident in their test-taking abilities.

Another idea is to clarify exactly what will be on the test. Teacher Linda Kardamis suggests giving students a list of topics they need to know. “Throughout your review time, encourage students to mark their topic list, crossing off things that they already know and highlighting or putting a star by things they know they need to study,” she writes.

By having this knowledge ahead of time, students will feel more prepared for the test. It also reduces worry and anxiety about being faced with questions they don’t know the answer to. 

When it comes to state tests, teachers can prepare students by familiarizing them with difficult terms that standardized test questions often involve, says middle school teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron. She points out that telling students to read the directions isn’t enough if those directions are unclear. A list of the most common words used in test instructions (like “analyze”) will familiarize students with words that can be hard to explain or understand.

Younger students might also benefit from something like a test-taking first aid kit, suggests upper elementary teacher Tammy DeShaw. She creates mock prescriptions for her students, which are accompanied by a brown paper bag filled with candy and band-aids. She also includes instructions for how to prepare for testing before, during and after the exam. This setup is a playful way to approach testing, which can reduce student anxiety. It also provides helpful information that they really need in order to do their best on the test. 

One tip DeShaw gives her students is to make sure they have a filling and nutritious breakfast. Having a few healthy snacks in the room can make sure that students aren’t distracted by hungry bellies, adds director of teaching and learning at KnowledgeWorks, Abbie Forbus

Peppermint and cinnamon are known to stimulate the brain and promote focus, so these can be incorporated into breakfast or a pre-test candy, says Forbus. Stretching can promote blood flow and keep student brains sharp, too. Before writing tests, she suggests giving students a few minutes to engage in active stretching and movements like jumping jacks to expend energy and create more room for concentration.

Images by: Antonio Diaz©123RF.com, wirojsid©123RF.com, dolgachov©123RF.com

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