Tangible Tools for Tackling Test Anxiety
“Who’s ever been in a position where your mind goes blank right when the test starts?”
Before I even finish the sentence, dozens of hands shoot up in the air. I follow up by asking my class what they do when this happens to them.
“I fail!” responds one student as several students in the class nervously laugh, indicating this scenario is all too real to them.
I wasn’t surprised by the number of students who have experienced the moment of “blanking on a test” or becoming increasingly stressed by just thinking about future assessments. But in this moment I realized that I wasn’t doing anything to help my students. I knew there was a problem but lacked the training or tools necessary to provide any tangible solution.
According to an article published by the National Education Association (NEA), what I witnessed in my classroom occurs in classrooms across the country. Mental health surveys referenced in the article have found that “today’s teens and young adults are the most anxious ever.” While there are many factors causing this epidemic of stress amongst kids and young adults, a large amount of this added stress stems from tests. In a survey of nearly 700 school districts by the New York School Boards Association and the New York Association of School Psychologists, approximately 75% of school psychologists reported that state standardized tests are causing greater anxiety and 60% indicate that Common Core-related standardized tests have increased student anxiety.
I recognize as teachers we have strong opinions on these state-mandated standardized tests. We may wish the testing decreased or abolished all together, but we must operate in the reality before us. When I stared out at a room full of young adults acknowledging their assessment anxiousness, whether I thought students were over-tested didn’t matter. I had two options: continue on as a passive witness to this problem or teach students how to overcome this obstacle.
In my class, I tried three specific practices to empower my students with the ability to tame their testing anxiety.
Here is how you can reduce student testing anxiety
1. Teach AND provide time to practice coping techniques
I relied heavily on Mindfulness and meditative techniques from sources such as Calm and Headspace. What I found most useful was going from “these types of breathing exercises can help you” to “let’s all practice this specific breathing exercise before all assessments.”
2. Emphasize that college is not the end game
I call this the “Colleges Care about Everything syndrome.” Often when discussing testing anxiety with my students, I found that many of them (falsely) believed colleges cared deeply about how they perform on standardized tests. I think this speaks to a greater issue, which is students believing their self-worth is tied to being accepted into college and how they score on some test. The more teachers can emphasize that life extends WAY beyond college and that you’re a person not a test score, the better students can develop a realistic sense of self.
3. Publicly celebrate non-academic wins as often as possible
Far too often I heard amazing young adults say, “I feel like I’m only a number to the school.” From morning meetings celebrating SAT scores to school-wide performance and rankings, schools put a lot of emphasis on doing well quantifiably. I recognize these efforts to celebrate academic success come from the heart, but the more I talk with students, the more I see how they perceive such events as meaning that the school only cares when students perform well. I’m certainly not saying we should abolish celebrations about academic success, but as much as possible, we need to couple those events with equally-touted celebrations of success that have nothing to do with academics or quantifiable performance.
About the Author
Brent Modak followed the example set by his grandfather and entered the classroom first as a middle school teacher before moving up to teach high school history. As a member of the ASSET team, Brent helped develop the curriculum and led in the implementation of the program across all of ASSET’s partner schools. When not teaching Brent enjoys spending time with his beautiful wife and newborn baby, Lewis.