Test Anxiety Creeps In
By Carola Tiltmann
June is nearly here and students are gearing up for final exams.
It’s an intense time when students, parents and teachers are focusing on study and test-taking strategies to get the best results out of those precious few hours of testing time. The pressure of an exam will always cause some level of stress – stomach butterflies, a faster heartbeat, fuzzy tingles – but some students, often including those with Learning Disabilities or ADHD, descend into full-blown worry, paralyzing test anxiety and blanking out. I’ve seen students spell their own names incorrectly, never mind make it through a booklet of math problems, write pages of insightful analysis or “Choose the Best Answer”.
Test anxiety doesn’t just appear one day. It’s often the cumulative result of poor test performance against all expectations. The student studied diligently but inexplicably, doesn’t do well on the test. Maybe they got 65% instead of more like 75% or 85%. That kind of startling result is an unwelcome shock. They might be able to dismiss it the first time because it was bound to happen once or maybe they weren’t totally feeling their best that day.
However, if the difference between the range of marks they predict for themselves is continually much lower than what they achieve, anxiety starts to set in. What are they doing wrong? They studied for hours, put in a lot of effort and now this happened. Again.
What students rarely understand are the many factors that influence a test result that have nothing to do with studying. These are external to the student and generally not within their control. Nonetheless, if students can be made aware of those factors, they can greatly reduce anxiety from setting in or alleviating test anxiety that already exists.
It All Starts With Spelling Tests
For many children, their first experience of tests is the familiar spelling test. You get a list of words in Grade 1, take it home and an adult practices the words with you until you can spell them all correctly every time (or at least most of the time). Many children get high marks on spelling tests which are celebrated with stickers, high fives and treats at home.
What many parents, or teachers for that matter, don’t realize, is that the nature of a spelling test includes the fact that the child is given all of the correct ‘answers’ to practice. There is a very high likelihood then of being able to achieve a great result. The same goes for basic math facts. 2 + 2 = 4 doesn’t change. These early experiences with predictable tests lead to fairly predictable results. Unfortunately, it also leads a lot of children (and parents) to assume they are ‘good’ at tests in general and will achieve similar results on any test that they diligently prepare for.
Any other test will ask considerably more of a student. They need to read well to comprehend any given scenarios, diagrams, maps, paragraphs or entire stories before being posed a series of increasingly complex questions; to manipulate the information they have learned to fit a particular outcome, to critically apply problem solving skills, to choose one answer from other seemingly reasonable ones, and in many other ways do anything except just reproduce a list of spelling words.
Other types of tests are also usually longer, cover learned content and can reference experiences at school such as films, experiments, group work, discussions, field trips or projects. They have different types of question formats such as multiple choice, matching, True or False, short or long answer, essay format, sketching diagrams, numerical response or writing out math problems. Some students prefer to complete a test in order from beginning to end while others prefer to complete the most challenging portions first, while they have more energy, and then tackle less complex parts at the end when they are getting tired. There is strategy at play.
It’s a big transition from a simple spelling test and one that is rarely intentionally acknowledged or prepared for. All of these factors require experience and skill in managing different types of question formats and shifting from one format to another throughout a test. Equally importantly, they change how a student needs to mentally prepare for achieving a less predictable result.
Managing Test Expectations
It’s important to help children create realistic expectations when it comes to test results.
Many students get nervous when they reach a question they can’t answer, especially if they feel like they should know ALL the answers. (Remember, they studied hard for hours!) They spend too much time trying to figure it out and feel scared that they are suddenly not smart enough which reduces their confidence for the rest of the test.
A simple strategy is to start a conversation that goes something like this.
“Is it reasonable that you will get 100%?”
“Ok. Then that means you will get some of the questions wrong. When you come up on a question that you don’t know how to answer, remember, this might be the one you get wrong because you know there are going to be a few of those. You don’t need to worry about it.“
“I don’t expect a 100% and neither should you.”
A perfect score is unlikely so let them know to expect questions they can’t answer. It often prevents confidence-busting test anxiety.
What Happens in Class, Ends up on the Test
Another aspect of managing expectations concerns how much the student prepared for the exam…and that involves a lot more than just the hours or weeks of studying beforehand.
Tests don’t just ask students to spill out all of the information they have memorized. They also have to be able to make connections between what they have learned and new pieces of information on the test, use their facts to solve unfamiliar problems, combine concepts in novel ways, or examine them from different perspectives. Those mental gymnastics are practiced when students actively participate in class discussions, group work and activities; and when they can be creative with projects, presentations and assignments.
So, while studying at home is certainly important, what happened in class prepares the student for a test as well. Here is another set of factors to explore with your child or student before and after tests. (When I’ve used these questions with the whole class, the students just thought about the answers rather than sharing them.)
- “Were you in class every day so you could participate?” Obviously, this has been a huge challenge for many children these past few years.
- “Did you participate in the discussions or answer questions in class?” Low engagement prevents interaction with the content and the learning is less deep.
- “Did you get all of your homework in on time and was it mostly correct?” Homework allows the practice of skills, can solidify new learning and help prepare the student for the next set of learning outcomes. On the other hand, poor homework management negatively impacts a student’s skill development and often affects their confidence when they have nothing to hand in.
- “How did you do on your other tests?” Test-taking skills take a long time to develop because you can only practice them while doing a test! So, expecting a significantly higher mark than what’s been achieved in the past is probably unrealistic. Aim for and celebrate small increments of only a few percent. Build on small improvements.
- “Did anything happen at home or with your friends before the test?” Children often don’t know that their emotional state affects their memory and concentration. Incidents or conflicts fire up certain parts of the brain which then prevent access to the parts needed to do well on an exam.
- “Did you do some review throughout the year to keep your knowledge fresh?” This is especially important for final exams. When students don’t have to use certain skills or information repeatedly, the brain actively prunes away these unused neural connections because after all, they’re not being used! When looking back at material from the beginning of the year, don’t be surprised to hear, “I don’t remember how to do any of this!” And it will be true; that information may actually no longer be there to remember. It will need to be learned again.
“But my Mom made me study it this way!”
Lastly, many parents help their children study especially in elementary school but often into higher grades as well. And however well-meaning they are, most can only help their children in ways that make sense to them…how they themselves studied best based on the kind of tests they wrote back in the day. This could be very much at odds with what their child actually requires in terms of study and test strategies now.
As a parent, if there is a test outline or guide, follow it. Practice at least some of the strategies that are practiced in class. If possible, ask to see a copy of the test (or past tests) to understand the kind of question formats being used, how the information is being presented and in what ways the child is expected to respond. It will help to boost confidence and reduce anxiety when home practice and school practice are aligned.
Ultimately, a student has to make it through the test by themselves. A better understanding of the constellation of factors that affect that final result, and knowing their teachers and parents understand that too, can make a huge difference in alleviating test-anxiety and ensuring a more welcome result.