Parents and educators alike worry that standardized tests place undue burdens on students, triggering stress and anxiety. In a fast-moving culture full of pressure to accumulate good grades and broad experience portfolios, teen stress and anxiety are moving down the chain and affecting middle and elementary students as well.
Sometimes this stress manifests as testing anxiety, both for standardized tests and routine summative assessments. Helping students handle their test stress can be key not only to a happy and healthy classroom but also to increasing student performance.
Teen stress levels now rival those of adults, according to a 2014 study by the American Psychological Association. This suggests we all need to do more to help students deal with test anxiety.
Recent trends have raised the stakes on standardized testing to all-time highs. What should be used in individual, grade-level, school and district review of curriculum and teacher effectiveness has turned into a measure of teacher success, sometimes even written into their pay structure. Fair or not, test participation and performance have become measures of school and district performance. This just adds to the stress on students.
But student test anxiety doesn’t stop at standardized tests. Any variety of summative assessments can trigger student fear. Preparation can help students cope with this anxiety, but it’s important to properly frame exams and help students understand how and why we have them. When students understand how and why they are being assessed, it becomes easier to accept test-related anxiety.
Genuine discussions about the role of formative and summative assessment as well as standardized testing can help students see the value in testing in the first place. This increases student buy-in and gives an opportunity to frame exams. In my teaching, I try to explain the purpose of assessments to my students. I find this can help reframe their perception and lower anxiety.
While it’s tempting to engage in skill-drill sessions before assessment, bringing creative and fun review sessions into the classroom can help mitigate student stress and enhance recall. In her piece “Top 12 Ways to Rev Up Classroom Review Strategies,” Stephanie Wrobleski recommends several fun ways to go over material with students, including using game show-style quizzing, tic-tac-toe, or playing concept or vocabulary Pictionary.
She also recommends putting students in the position of teachers. Finding low-stakes strategies for review helps students focus on collaborative ways to go over what they know, rather than worry about studying for a complicated and stressful exam.
Before exams, many teachers remind students to sleep well and eat a good breakfast, though this may reinforce the fears of test-anxious students. Recommending students bring a snack or, better yet, bringing them a small snack can help, particularly in areas where students may suffer from food insecurity.
Dedicating a small amount of time to mindfulness or physical exercise can also help clear a student’s mind. A brief walk, a few minutes of meditation or even five jumping jacks can help clear the mind. Giving students some deep-breathing and concentration strategies also helps. Additionally, working to reframe anxiety into excitement can help students reprogram their emotional response to their physical feelings.
Finally, please note that kindness goes a long way and encourage students to practice it on themselves. Working to shift negative thinking into positive reflection, from “If I fail I am not smart” to “I would like to see my hard work pay off,” helps students see testing not as a punishment, but an opportunity.
Ultimately, it’s also a kindness to remind students that testing is but a small picture of the incredible people they are. Tests can help them develop, but they are not a true judgment of their value in this world. This positive thinking can help shift their mindsets from test stress to success.
Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.