6 Simple Steps to Neutralize Test Anxiety

by Zena Smith

test-stressWhen you’ve spent enough time in the classroom, as many of our tutors have, you begin to get the sense that things in education aren’t always as they appear, nor does everything always go as planned. This is especially true in the world of test-taking.

On one hand, we have the test-makers trying their professional best to create a level playing-field for all students, such that the tests they create can truly measure who has mastered a particular set of knowledge or skills. And on the other hand, we have the test-takers, whose performance on these tests should point toward that exact conclusion.

What’s not accounted for is an ugly variable with a bigger effect than many parents and educators realize (or care to admit). It’s called test anxiety. No matter how well a test is written, and regardless of how many hours a student spends preparing, there will always be scenarios where students clam up, panic, get the sweats, draw a blank, and just cannot summon the information they’d known so well in the hours and days leading up to the exam.

According to findings of the TestEdge® National Demonstration Study, “a significant majority, 61%, of high school students suffer from test anxiety and 26% are handicapped by test anxiety often or most of the time.” To us, this embodies the definition of the word “unfair.” When the structure of the American education system allows tests to dictate so much about our students’ futures—from their GPAs to college admissions decisions and even the scholarship opportunities they have available to them—how can we expect test-anxiety sufferers to stand a competitive chance against their unaffected peers? And more importantly, how can these students overcome their nerves and ensure they perform up to their true abilities in these stressful situations?

When it comes down to it, there is never a guarantee that anxiety won’t strike when the stakes are high—be it on a final exam or a standardized test like the ACT, SAT, or GRE. But there are a slurry of tried-and-true methods to deter it as much as possible. If your student is gearing up for a big test in the coming weeks (the February 7th ACT test date, perhaps?), you can boost their chances of playing it cool and getting the score they deserve by helping them create a test-taking checklist.

What is Test Anxiety?

Test anxiety is a kind of performance anxiety. It can refer to a number of physical or psychological symptoms—from excessive sweating and difficulty breathing to forgetfulness, fear, or  panic—that strike when a student feels a high level of pressure to perform. Because tests of all sorts tend to have big consequences, it is often during test-taking periods that students experience these problems the most (and also why they may not appear on a regular day of class).

How Can Students Overcome Test Anxiety?

There is an old saying in the world of education: “chance favors the prepared mind.” While there is no way to erase the high stakes that bring on symptoms of anxiety, the surest way to reduce their effect is to eliminate any and all variables in the test taking environment. By knowing what to expect, being prepared for the best and worst outcomes, and ensuring that there are no unexpected surprises during the test period, students can improve their chances of staying calm and putting their knowledge to work.

We recommend the following checklist to make any test-taking environment a manageable one.

Get a Good Night’s Rest
You may already know that healthy brain function is tied to our sleeping habits. It is always important that your student gets the amount of sleep they need—usually 7-8 hours per night for high school students—but it is especially critical that they are well rested on the night prior to the test. This ensures that their brain will be firing on all cylinders as they enter the exam, which means they’ll do better to recall information and stay alert until the final blank is filled and the last box is checked.

Eat a Healthy Breakfast
Similarly to their sleep patterns, a student’s diet can also have a profound impact on their brain function. Be sure to eat a full, healthy breakfast on the morning of the exam. Not only will it affect their alertness and ability to recall information, but it will keep their minds free from the distractions of hunger. There’s nothing worse than losing focus because your stomach has started acting up.

Double-Check Your List of Supplies
If it helps, check it twice. Know what you’ll need for the exam—pencils, calculator, a compass or protractor, scratch paper, even a photo ID—and have it packed and prepared in your book bag before you go to bed. Test anxiety, like all forms of anxiety, is like a series of dominoes waiting to fall. If a student’s realizing they forgot their calculator causes a moment of panic, the rest of those dominoes may topple and the whole day can come unraveled. Eliminate that possibility by being proactive and thorough with what you pack.

Clear Your Mind
It’s okay if you want to review the material on the day of the test, and it can even be a good strategy. But if possible, quit the cramming at least an hour before the test begins. You won’t gain much in terms of information-retention by madly studying until the moment the test begins. In fact, it might have the opposite effect, causing numbers, dates, and formulas to become muddled and confused in your memory. With an hour to go before test time, put away the books and do whatever it takes to stop worrying. You’ve done your work to prepare, and by staying calm and loose, you’ve already given yourself the greatest chance of succeeding. We recommend taking a brief walk to help unwind. A little exercise can go a long way for the body and mind!

Arrive Early
Once again, there’s nothing that can catalyze that test-day panic like speeding down the freeway and worrying that you’ll miss the start of the test. You have a lot to gain and little to lose by showing up early. Figure out how long it will take you to get to school, to class, or to the test site. Then leave 15 minutes early to account for variables in traffic. When you’re in your desk with time to spare, you’ll be surprised by how much stress can roll off your back, knowing you won’t be a second late.

Have a Strategy
Take some time to research kinds of problems and material you’ll see on the test, as well as how the test is structured. Does it have multiple parts? Is it a multiple-choice test or a short-answer exam? Is it timed? Once you know what you’ll see, figure out how you want to approach it. How long will you spend on each question before moving on? What will you do if you don’t know an answer? Which section (assuming you have a choice) will you tackle first? Plot out a strategy that works for you, and stick to it! If there are no surprises to trip you up, the whole experience might fly by faster than you ever imagined. Before you know it, you’ll have conquered the test—and even better, you’ll have defeated test anxiety!



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