Just about every student in your class will have a least a little fear of test taking. Fear is a completely normal response to mild stressors such as tests. However, for some students, this fear of test taking extends beyond common fear into test anxiety. So if you’re wondering how to help students with test anxiety, you’re in the right spot.
Today we’re going to look at how to help students who have a fear of test taking or mild test anxiety. And while these strategies will help most students, some students have much more severe test anxiety and may need professional guidance.
What is test taking anxiety?
Test taking anxiety or fear of taking exams is defined by the American Psychological Association as “tension and apprehensiveness associated with taking a test, frequently resulting in a decrease in test performance”.
Further helpful information for teachers about test anxiety includes this information from the University of North Carolina, which breaks down the physical, behavioral/cognitive, and emotional symptoms of test anxiety.
Common symptoms of test anxiety according to the University of North Carolina include
- Physical: nausea, headache, excessive sweating, lightheadedness, rapid breathing, or feeling faint
- Behavioral/Cognitive: difficulty concentrating, procrastinating, comparison to others, or negative thoughts
- Emotional: feelings of stress, fear, helplessness, and disappointment, as well as racing thoughts, ruminating on negative thoughts, and mind going blank
With these symptoms in mind, teachers can help students identify when they have test anxiety, which types of symptoms students get, and how students can help themselves to manage mild test anxiety.
1. Helping students identify fears
Many students who have a fear of test taking are not actually scared of the test itself. As Thomas Frank explains in this video, the three main reasons why students have test anxiety are
- Fear of repeating past failures
- Fear of the unknown
- Fear of the stakes
Other sources, such as the University of North Carolina, suggest that students may also have a fear of test taking for reasons such as
- Inadequate preparation
So, test anxiety is not actually fear of the test but one of the fears listed above. Once your students know which fears are their biggest fears, they can take steps to deal with those fears.
One of my favorite ways to help with this is to watch the video with students so that they understand what test anxiety is and why they may have a fear of test taking.
Students can then take notes using this worksheet so that they have notes to refer to later. Once students have watched the video, it is helpful to discuss which fears they think they have – repeating past failures, the unknown, or the stakes.
Because once students know which fear is the strongest cause of their test anxiety, they can put strategies in place to try and ameliorate the effects of the fear.
2. Show students strategies to help with individual fears
Once students can answer the question what are the main causes of test anxiety for themselves, they can begin to put in strategies to help reduce the effect of those fears.
So, what helps with test anxiety for students? Well, that depends on what their individual fear or combination of fears are. But once students know which fears trigger their anxiety, students can use strategies to combat them.
Some of these strategies will be outlined in more detail below, but they boil down to helping students to
- Process past failures
- Reduce the unknowns of the test
- Reduce the stakes of the test
- Ensure they are adequately prepared for tests
- Manage perfectionism
3. Reinforce alternative pathways to goals
One of the big fears that students have about tests is that they will never achieve their goals if they fail this test. When students feel like tests are high-stakes, they won’t get into their choice of course at university, they’ll have to repeat a year, they’ll have to do summer school, or they won’t achieve their dreams, one small test can take on out-of-proportion significance.
One way to combat this is to reinforce to students that there are always alternative pathways to get to goals. Sure, they might take longer, or involve doing other unpleasant things in the meantime, but they are available.
Great ways to do this are to collect stories from friends and family about alternative paths they’ve taken to achieve success. This might be
- The neighbor who flunked high school but started their own successful business
- Your friend who got an entry-level job and worked their way up
- The kid down the street who didn’t get into the college that they wanted to, did a few years of community college, switched to their preferred college, and graduated with a degree from their preferred college in the end
- Your cousin who started an online side hustle while working a grocery check-out job and now does their side hustle as a full-time business
We all know people who have had early setbacks, worked hard at what they wanted to do, and then reached their goals in the end. So share those stories with your students so they stop feeling like this one test will decide their whole future. This dramatically lowers the stakes and helps to alleviate some of that fear of test-taking.
4. Do mock tests under exam conditions
This strategy aims to combat the fear of the unknown that students often have when it comes to tests. Often, before a test, students don’t know what room the test is in, where they need to sit, what materials they need, or what will be in the exam.
So help students practice this. Do a mock test under exam conditions. If possible try to
- hold the mock test in the room the test will be in
- do the mock test at the same time the real test will be held
- sit students in the order they’ll have to sit in for the real test
- get students to bring the materials they’ll need
- use revision questions for the test so that students are revising relevant material
All of these things will be helping students with test anxiety because they will be eliminating some of the unknowns about the real test.
5. Show students strategies to process past failures and prevent obsessive negative thinking
If students’ test anxiety is due to past failures then strategies to help them process past failures and manage negative thinking will be a great way of helping test anxiety. Some ways to do this include
- inviting the guidance counselor to run a session with students to teach them mindfulness meditation or breathing exercises to manage emotions and thoughts
- showing students that failure is how we learn
- explaining your own past failures and how you learned from them
- modeling how you manage negative thinking
- getting students to explain what happened in past failures and then possibly identify why it happened (and whether they had control over any of it)
6. Help students adequately prepare by explicitly teaching study skills
Another strategy for helping students manage test anxiety is to explicitly teach study skills such as
- creating a study timetable
- how to take notes
- making study questions
- understanding syllabi
- how to do spaced repetition
- managing study time
- planning and organizing their time effectively
The easiest way to help students with these skills is to run mini-lessons where you explicitly teach study skills. These can be extremely short in-class sessions or given to students for homework.
An easy way to do this is to get students to watch the Crash Course Study Skills videos and use these worksheets. The worksheets are a fast, no-prep way to help students take notes from the videos and have something to refer to later.
They are also a great no-prep lesson to leave for substitute teachers if you have to take a sick day. Alternatively, you might like to use them in specific classes, such as study hall or a study skills class. Or you might like to use them at specific points in the academic year, such as before a research assignment, during a revision lesson, or before final exams.
No matter how you use them, students with stronger study skills report having a greater sense of academic self-efficacy.
7. Connect students with guidance counselors
Sometimes the best thing you can do for students is to connect them with professionals who can help them. If students’ test anxiety is bigger than the run-of-the-mill nervousness or a mild fear of test taking, the best way of helping students cope with test anxiety might be to get them to a guidance counselor.
Connecting students with a guidance counselor ensures that somebody is getting more detail about the reasons for and effects of students’ anxiety. It also ensures that students have follow-up care for their anxiety.
You might only run one or two sessions to help students with test anxiety, but some students may need ongoing support managing their test anxiety and it’s important that they receive it. Ongoing support can be difficult as a classroom teacher because you may only see a student for a few hours a week and you also need to teach them (and the other twenty-odd students in your class) the required content.
On top of that, sometimes school counselors have to ability to help students access additional accommodations or support such as
- more time to take tests
- helping students with test-taking strategies such as skipping questions they don’t know and coming back to them later
- ‘breaks’ in a test to help them concentrate
- verbal tests instead of written tests
Where can you find more information about how to help students with test anxiety?
Good places to find more information about strategies to help students with test anxiety include
- your school guidance counselor
- The University of North Carolina’s webpage about test anxiety
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America
- Child Mind Institute
- If you’re an Aussie, BeyondBlue
- This New York Times article about test anxiety
- This article on Edutopia
- These practical suggestions for teachers by Sarah Blake and Cassie Shutt published by the University of Delaware