Helping Students Cope With Test Anxiety

Helping Students Cope With Test Anxiety

Taking tests can be nerve-wracking experiences. Add to that the weight and implications of a high-stakes test like the SAT or ACT and even the coolest and most relaxed test-taker feels some pressure.

Test anxiety isn’t just that nervousness magnified; it is a legitimate psychological condition that affects as much as 20% of American students. While I have not, personally, suffered from test anxiety, I have seen its effects hamstring otherwise strong students of all ages.

While I always knew test anxiety was real, it was when I had to face my own anxiety challenges that it hit home how devastating it could be for students trying to demonstrate their true academic abilities in the face of such a crippling disorder.

Understanding Anxiety First

For those who have never suffered from a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), it can be hard to understand. From the outside looking in, there are so many misconceptions about how these types of issues can and should be handled by those suffering from them.

Personally, I have experienced and undergone treatment for anxiety issues stemming from stress-triggered panic attacks. It wasn’t until I had to experience the physical and psychological effects of my body and mind completely overwhelming me that I had any idea what true anxiety was.

I have always been a very rational, level-headed, and emotionally-balanced person. It takes a lot to knock me off of center; I pride myself on my ability to reason my way through the majority of life’s challenges. If someone had told me five years ago that I would one day have to get help to deal with anxiety disorder, I would have laughed at them.

Well, it happened; and as I’ve learned, it can really happen to anyone for a host of different reasons.

It’s hard to truly describe what intense anxiety feels like to someone who hasn’t experienced it first-hand. For me, bouts of anxiety typically manifested as a paradoxical mix of hopelessness and overstimulation: I would feel like my heart was going to beat out of my chest while at the same time I felt depressed — like I wanted to curl up into a ball and totally shut down.

While this is how anxiety manifested for me, others report symptoms like stomach upset, hopelessness, shortness of breath, and even anger.

For me, academic tests weren’t the antecedent for my anxiety episodes, but having experienced trying to function with a GAD, I can’t fathom how students demonstrate their academic abilities to the fullest while coping with similar feelings.

The Test Anxiety Challenge

When anxiety gets tied to test-taking, the consequences can be truly daunting. While there are modifications that can be put in place through Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for extreme cases, most students will still have to take tests, anxiety or not. Making matters worse, those tests have real consequences.

For educators and test prep professionals, it is important to recognize the signs of a student who may be dealing with test anxiety. Part of preparing these types of students is trying to find ways to equip them to identify and respond to an anxiety episode in the moment. Some of the best methods include:

1.  Test Preparation

For many students, test anxiety is triggered by a feeling of being unprepared for the uncertainties of test-day. For college entrance tests like the SAT and ACT, engaging with a comprehensive test preparation program that provides both authentic practice and meaningful feedback can help assuage feelings of fear and uncertainty.

Furthermore, consider offering students the opportunity to take practice tests under test-day conditions. More than just preparing for test content, this can help create a frame of reference to both identify the form their anxiety takes, but also hone in on what coping strategies actually work to deal with the anxiousness.

2. Mindfulness Techniques

From my own experience, I can attest to the value of mindfulness techniques like meditation, positive self-talk, and situational awareness when it comes to getting through anxious moments and panic attacks.

Not every technique will work for every person, but part of living with any form of anxiety is experimenting with different techniques and building a toolbox of coping mechanisms. When working with a student experiencing anxiety, have suggestions and strategies at the ready to help offer support. Speaking with mental-health professionals can also be helpful in identifying research-based options.

It is important to remember, just like the skills being assessed on the test, these survival mechanisms are skills that need to be practiced in order to be effective come test-day! A student knowing coping strategies won’t matter if they don’t have the understanding of how to implement them.

3. Physical Fitness

While there isn’t a Phys. Ed. section on the SATs (…yet), exercise and a healthy diet are especially crucial for those who suffer from anxiety disorders. Regular exercise and a healthy diet can not only help reduce stress, but it helps your body be more prepared to endure stressful episodes.

Encourage your students to develop healthy habits like taking exercise breaks and choosing brain-foods over unhealthy snacks. These modifications can have meaningful impacts when it comes to facing test anxiety symptoms by ensuring the body and mind are fully equipped to perform at their best.

4. Optimal Testing Environments

Sometimes where you take a test can be more of a challenge than the actual test itself.

My wife (who suffers from test anxiety, herself) experienced this first-hand last year when taking her Praxis exams. Throughout the process, she ended up sitting for three different test sessions.

The first test center she attended was a nightmare. The director started the registration process by patting down each test-taker and sternly reading a list of inflexible test-center policies including no gum-chewing (one of my wife’s coping mechanisms for her test anxiety).

After the test began, the test-takers had to wait with their hand raised (for several minutes in some cases) for allowed materials like extra scratch paper or replacements for broken pencils. The testing environment was kept uncomfortably cold and there were restrictions on wearing extra layers like a sweatshirt or a coat (part of the center’s aforementioned policy manifesto).

This is less than an ideal environment for any test-taker, let alone one with test anxiety issues. Needless to say, my wife’s performance suffered; she didn’t even finish several portions of the exam. The test was stressful enough, but with the added pressures of a hostile testing environment, it was a wonder she was able to pass the sections she did that day!

Before retaking the exam, she did her research to find a test center that was well-reviewed as a comfortable place to test. She ended up driving a bit farther and had to settle for a less-than-ideal testing date, but she had a significantly less stressful experience and passed her test.

When possible, help students choose testing centers that provide the best chance for a calm, comfortable environment. Opting for a familiar location (like the student’s home school) can make a difference. Keep track of client feedback about testing locations that are both comfortable and uncomfortable so that you can share it with future students.

Test anxiety is a real issue that test prep professionals need to be prepared to both identify and address with their students. Just as there is no single way in which test anxiety manifests, there is no one-size-fits-all plan of attack for dealing with it. To provide the best possible chance of success for your students, take the time to understand how and why they may be struggling with the pressures of test-day. Equip yourself to be able to provide both coping strategies and purposeful opportunities for students to practice them before test-day comes.

What are your experiences helping students with test anxiety? What techniques have you found to be effective in helping these students? Share your stories with our readers in the comments below!

Matt McCorkle