Thursday, April 4, 2013

Test Anxiety- How to Help Your Student Cope by Mikey Smith, M. Ed

It's human nature to feel nervous and stressed out before a test, especially a high-stakes test that might determine whether or not you get into a program or a school or get a certain grade. Just about everyone knows the feeling of having butterflies in the stomach before a big test.

For some students, though, stress brought on by testing goes far further than simple nervous stomach and sweaty palms. An estimated 20% -- 30% of students have 'test anxiety,' which can manifest in a variety of ways. Some students get physically ill before tests, experiencing symptoms like dry mouth, rapid heart beat, and even vomiting or fainting. Others might not really feel ill, but might fabricate illnesses or other conditions to avoid a stressful situation altogether. A third group of students simply freeze up when required to take tests, seemingly forgetting all information they have learned in preparation for the exam. 

I was a member of the last group of students for most of my academic life. Although I did not become physically ill when faced with a testing scenario, on math tests I would completely freeze up, even though I always studied and could do the homework. It was like I had never seen the material before. My grades suffered, and so did my confidence. My teachers (and parents) were mystified by my behavior, until one teacher named it: test anxiety. This teacher devoted hours of her own time to helping me, even writing entire math tests on the chalkboards in her room and having me work each problem as she scrutinized each step to see where I was making mistakes.

Haley Murdock, a fourth grade math teacher, is also familiar with test anxiety. She too suffered from test anxiety through her educational career and now sees it in some of her students. “When I took tests, I would study with my dad, I would really know the material,” Murdock says, “but then when test day came, I could not remember a thing.” She adds that her personal experience with test anxiety has helped her to assist her students that she sees suffering with the same issues she has faced. 

First off, she teaches her students how to study in an active way. “Don’t just read the material,” she says. “Summarize and write about what you read so that you can go back and study from that.” She also gives her students multiple opportunities to show their knowledge, as opposed to one huge test at the end of a unit. “Some students are good at taking tests, so I let them take tests, but others are better at creating portfolios or projects.” 

Unfortunately, not all teachers have the time, skills and patience required to work with students one on one. Further, such assistance is not allowed on standardized tests at all. Although it is wonderful to have supportive adults helping out a student with test anxiety, it also makes sense to arm that student with skills and strategies so that they can help themselves work through stressful situations where adult/outside Intervention is not allowed or not possible.

One way to help get an anxiety-ridden student to see that tests can be tackled is to teach them about simple self-calming techniques that they can do quietly and without drawing attention to him-or-herself. Such techniques can be as simple as counting to 10 silently, taking deep breaths and/or closing their eyes and visualizing a successful performance on the exam. Talking to students before test days and letting them know how much you care about them is also important. 

Another helpful measure could also be enrolling an anxious student in a test-prep program. Parents should exercise care when selecting a program, however! Many programs focus only on the test itself, offering many opportunities for practice testing, but not much in the way of prescriptive feedback. This type of instruction does not get at the root causes of each student's individual anxieties. Most students already get that type of one-size-fits all test prep at school, anyway. 

Instead, test prep classes should focus on each student's individual strengths and weaknesses and offer instruction based on what each child needs. While test-taking opportunities are very important, they should not be the sole focus of a test preparation course. Course Instructors should be veteran educators with an understanding of the adolescent mind and a variety of strategies to both educate and empower students.

Despite the fact that no one really seems to love the frequency with which today's students are tested, the reality is that tests aren't going away. Many students experience standardized testing starting as young as kindergarten, and such high-stakes tests continue through college and beyond. Preparing students for test-taking and other stressful scenarios by giving them coping strategies and skills is one of the strongest and most positive ways to impact a student's life.

Think your child might benefit from participating in a customized test prep course? If so, check out Target Practice, Raising the Bar’s customized test-prep program. For more information, log onto or give them a call at 832.661.5407.

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