Does your student freeze, fumble, or flip out when confronted with high-stakes testing? They may be experiencing test anxiety.
According to Dr. Ellen Braaten, PhD, test anxiety exists at the intersection of four categories:
- Behaviors such as difficulty focusing, panic attacks, avoiding studying, becoming overwhelmed over small issues, talking about the upcoming test all the time, saying unkind things about oneself, and dysregulated sleeping or eating.
- Feelings such as worry, dread, tension, helplessness, and the mind going “blank” or feeling paralyzed.
- Thoughts such as comparing oneself to others, doubts about one’s ability, and negative beliefs about the consequences of poor test performance.
- Physical symptoms such as sweaty palms, upset stomach, racing heart, headache, shortness of breath, and tense muscles
Dr. Braaten joined Signet for a recent webinar in which she shared some incredibly useful tips for helping students with test anxiety prepare for testing.
How to Help Students with Anxiety Prepare for Testing
First, it’s important to acknowledge that test anxiety isn’t all bad and that the ultimate goal isn’t to not experience any anxiety. When a student feels anxious, it indicates that they care. In contrast, the total absence of anxiety can signify indifference. So let’s move forward with this framing in mind: a little bit of anxiety is a good thing.
Still, students can mitigate their test anxiety with the right preparation. Here’s what Dr. Braaten recommends:
Start a conversation
Parents should start by getting to the bottom of what’s causing their child’s test anxiety. Have a conversation with your child about why they’re feeling so worried about testing, posing questions like:
- What are you worried will happen? Could this outcome realistically occur?
- How prepared do you feel for the test?
- How have tests gone in the past? What do you expect to happen during the upcoming test?
Take care of the basics
Taking care of basic human needs like sleeping, eating, breathing, and moving can make a world of difference for a student experiencing test anxiety. It can even have a positive impact during the testing itself.
Also, remember that test anxiety tends to occur during times of stress. Parents should help their children limit stress in their lives as much as possible when a big test like the SAT or ACT is coming up.
Make studying a priority
Developing and executing good study habits is key for students with test anxiety. Dr. Braaten suggests these tactics:
- Working with a tutor
- Trying different study strategies
- Spreading studying out over time
- Taking practice tests to increase exposure
- Creating a study schedule
- Comparing notes to make sure the material is correct
Talk to the teacher
Some teachers are more understanding of anxiety than others. But either way, talking to a teacher about an upcoming test can be immensely helpful for students.
The teacher giving the test can clear up any misunderstandings and clarify the format of the test, the topics that will be covered, and how to best prepare.
Practice test-taking strategies
Students can only effectively implement test-taking strategies if they practice them. Dr. Braaten suggests taking practice tests to hone strategies like:
- Reading the directions
- Doing the simple questions first
- Writing an outline for essays
- Process of elimination
Be aware of negative thoughts and challenge them
It’s crucial for students to realize that the worst thing they imagine happening is highly unlikely to happen! Parents should encourage their children to ask themselves questions like:
- Will this one test really ruin my life?
- Will my mathematics teacher truly hate me if I don’t remember the Pythagorean theorem?
- Will my friends actually judge me for scoring lower than them on the test?
In most cases, the answer to these questions is a reassuring “No.” That said, it can also be helpful for students to acknowledge the real-life consequences of performing poorly on a test so that they can manage them proactively. For instance, if a student is likely to be held back because of one test, they can begin talking to their academic support team about making a plan.
Approach the test with confidence
Finally, Dr. Braaten advises teaching children to use a growth mindset. Parents should avoid assuring their children that they can do anything, as this approach can be overwhelming to a perfectionist.
Instead, encourage your child to see the brain as a muscle that needs to be exercised. Tell them that failure and mistakes are part of how we learn—and that their brain gets stronger every time they bounce back from a mistake. Praise effort, not results, and reserve praise for meaningful moments.
Beyond preparing for testing, Dr. Braaten also shared tips for helping students manage anxiety during testing and signs that a student is experiencing something more than anxiety (e.g., an underlying learning disability or poor executive function skills). We highly recommend watching the webinar in its entirety to learn more!
If your student has test anxiety and could use some additional support, the team at Signet is here to offer our assistance. Reach out to us today to start a conversation.