How to Reduce Students’ Anxiety About Tests
A certain amount of student anxiety about tests is normal and even helpful to performance, says SUNY/New Paltz professor Spencer Salend in this Kappan article. But between 25 and 40 percent of students experience severe test anxiety – they are extremely nervous and apprehensive, have physical symptoms (perspiration, nausea, rapid heartbeat, dizziness), have difficulty concentrating, and engage in negative self-talk – all of which has a serious impact on their ability to perform well and harms their development and feelings about themselves and school.
Salend distinguishes test anxiety from the more generalized “trait anxiety”, which applies across a wide range of situations. A number of factors can produce test anxiety, including:
– Anxiety, attention, or obsessive-compulsive disorders;
– Perfectionist tendencies and unrealistic expectations;
– Negative self-esteem, self-statements, and procrastination;
– Stereotype threat;
– Inadequate study and test-taking skills;
– Poor performance on previous tests;
– Pressure from family, teachers, and peers;
– Unfavorable testing environments;
– Invalid, flawed, and timed tests;
– Ineffective teaching that leaves students unprepared to handle a test.
One or two of these factors can snowball to others, working a student into an anxious and unproductive mental state.
Salend suggests a number of strategies to alleviate test anxiety. These are helpful to all students, not just those with extreme test anxiety.
• Make tests student-friendly. This includes crystal-clear test directions, using questions that relate to students’ lives, giving students choices, and spreading tests out so students aren’t over-tested in any one time period.
• Maximize validity. It’s important for teachers to know the topics, concepts, vocabulary, and skills that upcoming tests are going to assess so they can align the curriculum accordingly. The number of test items for each area should correspond to the amount of instructional time spent during the year. Some aspects of the curriculum may lend themselves to observations, clickers, performance assessments, and portfolios rather than paper-and-pencil tests.
• Make tests graphically accessible. This includes clear layout and format, clear transitions from item to item, not too many test items on a page, grouping similar types of questions, and providing students enough space to respond.
• Enhance readability. This means using as few words as possible in short sentences; using comprehensible vocabulary, sentence structure, and voice; avoiding pronouns, double negatives, abbreviations, acronyms, and parentheses; using readable type fonts and sizes; not putting too many words per line; and avoiding right-justification.
• Foster motivation during testing. This includes embedding prompts at strategic points in a test to help students stay focused, remain calm, and succeed.
• Teach anxiety-reduction strategies. This might include advising students not to arrive early for a test (to avoid tense conversations with peers); using meditation, prayer, yoga, smelling fragrances, deep breaths and breaks; and using positive self-talk, guided imagery, and focusing on past successes.
• Teach test-taking strategies. These include developing and reviewing study guides, using effective study techniques (e.g., spaced practice, self-testing), getting students working in collaborative study groups, using memory strategies, using educational games to prepare, thinking through possible test questions, doing a memory dump at the beginning of the test, scanning the whole test before beginning, budgeting time efficiently, and highlighting key words in the directions. Students whose IEPs entitle them to accommodations should take full advantage of them.
“Teaching Students Not to Sweat the Test” by Spencer Salend in Phi Delta Kappan, March 2012 (Vol. 93, #6, p. 20-25), http://www.kappanmagazine.org