Strategies for Teachers to Help Students Mitigate Test Anxiety

In a test situation, teachers will see some students exhibit signs of test anxiety. They will appear to be overly anxious, some become extremely fidgety, and in an extreme case, a student might leave the room abruptly in tears.

While a little anxiety can be a positive motivator for a student to study well, too much anxiety can detract from performance on a test. Test anxiety may be due to insufficient preparation and a feeling of pressure to excel on the test. In other cases, a student may have prepared well but then his or her anxiety causes the student to falter when the test begins.

Although the causes for test anxiety vary from student to student, teachers can help mitigate test anxiety for students prone to negative experiences. Consider these 10 strategies:

  1. Provide useful guidelines about the test content. Saying “The test will cover everything we have done since the midterm” is not helpful for an anxious student. Many topics are covered in a six- or seven-week period. Consider this statement: “The test will have 35 questions including multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, and matching about Excel formulas along with a practical section that involves creating an Excel worksheet with statistical and logical functions, advanced formatting, and a chart.” The second statement gives the student more information about the format of the test as well as the main study topics.
  2. Aim to have graded work back to students with sufficient time for the students to review their grade and feedback and ask follow-up questions.
  3. Design your tests to cover topics that you emphasized in class. Avoid adding questions on a concept test about a fact that was only briefly mentioned in class or that was covered in one bullet point on a PowerPoint slide. Expecting recall of an esoteric fact promotes anxiety in some people.
  4. If your tests include a lot of multiple-choice questions, make sure your questions are well written and are clearly matched to a learning outcome. If your school offers professional development on effective question writing, make sure you attend a workshop. Writing good multiple-choice questions is not easy.
  5. Give students lots of notice about the day, time, and format of the test. Encourage students not to wait until the last minute to cram for the test. Research shows that regular studying rather than last minute cramming leads to better retention.
  6. If you have some older tests that you no longer use that are similar in format, show students a previous test or give them a practice test.
  7. Facilitate peer study groups by allowing a small amount of classroom time to encourage students to form study groups. Book a conference room for these peer study groups and drop in to the sessions to answer questions.
  8. If you know senior students that are willing to mentor first-year students, offer to book a time and place when the two groups of students can meet each other and develop study partners.
  9. Encourage students to form a test-taking strategy in place before the test. For example, in a multiple-choice test, students could set a time limit of no more than two minutes on a question before they move on to the next question.
  10. Host a peer discussion group in your learning management system where students can pose questions for their peers to answer. By monitoring the discussion threads, you can see where students need clarification before the test.

During the test, a teacher can help alleviate anxiety by following these practices:

  1. Arrive early to set up and make sure you are calm yourself. Being prepared, showing a relaxed demeanor, and starting on time ensures the test begins in a calm environment.
  2. Smile as you greet each student when they enter the room. It’s a small gesture that will help students to feel good and that you care about them.
  3. Make sure your test instructions are clear. Ambiguity will lead to increased anxiety.
  4. Be proactive during the test if you notice a student struggling. You can head off a problem if you calmly speak to the student in a low voice, offer encouragement, and perhaps steer him or her towards leaving a question they have spent too much time on.

After the test:

If you noticed a student with an unhealthy level of test anxiety, consider talking privately with the student and referring him or her to the school’s counseling department to access resources and services that will help the student cope.

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