The Whiteboard

How to Help Students Cope with Test Anxiety

Teachers can play an active role in supporting students experiencing test anxiety.

Test anxiety is fairly common, affecting approximately 25% to 40% of U.S. students. It can have a significant and sometimes even debilitating impact on a student’s performance. But the good news is that many resources, techniques, and strategies exist that can help ease test anxiety. And, teachers can play an active role in supporting students experiencing these feelings as well by implementing the following strategies:

Supporting test preparation

Equipping our students with the skills necessary to prepare for testing will greatly reduce their stress. At the beginning of the school year, teachers can set a good example by developing a consistent testing schedule for the year so students can learn to plan ahead. In addition, providing study guides and organized study plans throughout the school year will help students learn how to appropriately review material. Teachers can also help set students up for success by emphasizing the positive impact a healthy, balanced diet can have on academic performance.

Reframing perspectives

Helping students understand that testing is only one part of the learning journey can give them a broader perspective of academic achievement and open their eyes to alternative paths to success. Teachers can help students recall their successes in extracurricular activities like sports, clubs, and the arts. Reminding students to focus on their strengths instead of their weaknesses can help build students’ self-confidence and resilience and, in turn, help reduce test anxiety.

Encouraging adequate sleep

Being well-rested can reduce feelings of anxiety during testing. Sleep also helps restore energy levels, dispel mental fog, and improve memory. Teachers can encourage their students to optimize their rest by going to bed and waking up at the same time every night, avoiding bright screens (TV, computer, phone) for at least one hour before bedtime, and refraining from caffeine or other stimulants later in the day. To help students fall asleep quickly, teachers can recommend that they listen to calming music, read something relaxing, or practice relaxation techniques (like mindful breathing or visualization) before turning out the lights.

Addressing underlying anxiety

Test anxiety is often caused or exacerbated by preexisting anxiety. Since 31.9% of adolescents reported having an active form of the condition with 8.3% experiencing extreme levels that meet the DSM-IV criteria for impairment, it’s important that teachers help their students address and manage underlying anxiety. While not every condition is the same, teachers can support all of their students by creating a welcoming classroom environment and encouraging open communication and support. Teaching relaxation techniques (such as mindfulness, diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization) can also help students better regulate their underlying anxiety.

Sharing test-taking strategies

Learning specific techniques and approaches to more effectively demonstrate knowledge on tests can reduce feelings of test anxiety among students. Teachers can review upcoming test formats and the best way to allocate time for each section of a test. Reminding students to carefully read directions before beginning any testing activity makes comprehension of the instructions more likely. And, instructing students to eliminate all distractions (like turning off electronics, putting away study materials, and blocking out other test takers) will help them remain focused, organized, and on task while testing. 

Emphasizing positive thinking

Positive thinking can help reduce stress levels and prevent test anxiety from spiraling out of control. Teachers can remind students to shift their focus onto all they have done to prepare for the test (including studying daily, getting enough sleep, and learning test-taking strategies). Reassuring students that their success is not ultimately determined by their test scores is another way to reduce some of the pressure students might feel. 

Pamela Roggeman, Ed.D. is Dean of the College of Education at the University of Phoenix. She has spent over a decade in higher education teacher preparation in both the public and private sectors. Prior to that, she was an award-winning high school English teacher for 18 years in Arizona. 


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