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Helping Students Ease Test Anxiety

In 1960,  Seymour Sarason and his colleagues first articulated the issue of test anxiety among elementary school students, highlighting that “…[w]e live in a test-conscious, test-giving, culture in which the lives of people are in part determined by their test performance”.

According to Dave Putwain, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Edge Hill University, test anxiety is the varying degree to which tests and other forms of evaluation are found to be threatening by individuals in these situations. Many instructors and the institutions where they teach are aware that most students experience test anxiety to some degree. In many cases, nervousness preceding an evaluation is normal and may improve student performance. The severity of stress may range from being low and subtle to a feeling of being overwhelmed. Putwain is clear to differentiate between stress, which is normal for many students to experience, and elevated anxiety, which may be more serious.

For the former, Minnesota State University – Manakato indicates that a high amount of test anxiety can be “learned” behavior, which students can “unlearn” with proper study habits and conscious effort. This is good news for students that are prone to high levels of stress. The goal should be not to eliminate stress entirely, but to bring it down to a healthy, moderate amount.

Based on neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson’s book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, the Compass Education Group highlights that high levels of stress before a test is often the result of unnecessary, self-imposed pressures. The combination of a lengthy, high stakes exam coupled with the added pressure students place on themselves to succeed is a perfect recipe for test anxiety.

Fortunately, there are some strategies that educators can suggest to students to better overcome such pressure before taking tests. Most resources point to positive student study habits. Educational Testing Service (ETS) provides some targeted strategies that emphasize preparation, organization, and practice. Students may feel overwhelmed by the amount of material on an exam, the testing environment, and consequences of not doing well. Both ETS and the Center of Academic Success at Butte College further provide guidance for preventing negative thoughts and remaining focused during an exam.

Similarly, Kansas State University offers a list of key tactics for effective exam studying. The top suggestion involves studying topics or sections in smaller pieces at a time.  Often students try to do too much at once. It is also recommended to self-quiz after assigned readings. Only 20% of course material that is read is retained after two weeks. But if self-evaluation occurs immediately after reading the material, this number jumps to 50-65%; it further jumps to 75-80% if self-evaluation occurs twice.

TED-Ed is a popular YouTube channel that focuses on a variety of educational topics. A recently published a video addresses ways to overcome mathematical (test) anxiety. These ideas may be “lessons worth sharing” with students.

Let us know what you think in the comment section below. What are ways you help your students overcome stress related to exams? Read More blog posts from us related to general instruction and best practices.