Five Creative Solutions to Test Anxiety

The golden days of paper testing

By Scott Sterling

As carefully as we try to prepare our students for upcoming assessments aligned with Common Core State Standards and other rigorous new standards, their success could hinge on something that has nothing to do with their knowledge or even academics in general. Instead, it could be psychology.

Many teachers have seen bright, capable students score poorly on assessments due to their anxiety about the test. They might rush through. They might slow down to the point where they don’t finish. Above all, they’re probably second-guessing themselves the entire time.

Here are some solutions you can consider for this year or, for longer-term ideas, the next school year.

Dry run

Assessments have undergone many changes around the country recently, so even older students might not know what to expect during this round of testing. Finding out how the test works on the day of will quickly derail their focus.

Take a day or two leading up to the test to help them through the timing of the test. In testing conditions, 45 minutes seems like a completely different time frame than it does during the regular day. If testing sessions extend longer than the time you have available, coordinate with another teacher to share your class periods.

Also, if your test will be computer-based, make sure the students have plenty of experience in how the system works, where to find the note taking and calculator functions, etc. Every assessment should have a demo or practice mode.

A lesson in breathing

The most prevalent symptom of test anxiety is irregular breathing. If the brain isn’t receiving its usual amount of oxygen, functions will suffer. You can’t become a yoga instructor overnight, but it’s worth spending a bit of time instructing students on research-based breathing exercises.

Here’s a quick rundown on some breathing exercises proven to lower stress levels in 10 minutes or less. Teach the kids these exercises before testing day and convince them to take some time for themselves before pencils hit paper.

Chair stretching

While diligently administering a test, you’ll see the kids do some strange things in their chairs to get comfortable. While it’s generally OK to let them do anything that makes them feel better, there are actual stretches that can improve circulation and relieve aching muscles.

Spend some time researching effective stretching while seated, like this video from the Mayo Clinic, and then share the techniques with your kids. Not only will they feel better at the end of the long testing week(s), but they should also have improved focus—which might correlate with higher scores.

Impromptu catering manager

Hunger is a big distraction factor during tests. Unfortunately, too many of our students come to school hungry. Although it might seem like an extravagance, stock up on some granola and protein bars before testing starts and distribute them before the testing room has to be locked down. There are also a few restaurants, like McDonald’s or Chick-Fil-A, that offer free breakfast to students on testing days, depending on the area. Make sure the students know about that.

Cult of positivity

One of my favorite quotes comes from Henry Ford. The automobile magnate once said, “Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re probably right.”

Positivity might be the most valuable culture you can establish in your classroom. Nothing eliminates anxiety more than confidence. Although it’s more of a long-term solution, make sure the students always think they can do something. That will carry over to test day.

This year’s edition of Building Expertise, Journey to Rigor, will be held at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort in Orlando, FL on June 17–19. Come hear the latest in pedagogical advancements from Dr. Robert Marzano and others, all while relaxing in Mickey’s neighborhood!

We believe that the most important thing a teacher or leader can do is to fuel each student’s passion for learning. When this is achieved, a lifetime of accomplishment becomes possible for that learner. Through partnerships with schools and districts throughout the country, we help educators and leadership transform each classroom into a powerful learning environment that prepares students for lasting success in school, the global workplace, and beyond. Our vision for the future is big and bright, and we love helping schools get there. Learn more about Learning Sciences International.

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