How to Relieve Test Anxiety in High School Students
Chris Zook is a contributing author to the AES blog. He enjoys everything about online marketing, data science, user experience, and corgis.
Test anxiety is the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral state of extreme discomfort during times of academic testing, evaluation, and other high-pressure situations.
Most often, test anxiety applies to students in grades K-12. But students in post-secondary education experience it as well.
So what’s the cure to test anxiety?
Unfortunately, there isn’t one.
However, there are some clinically-proven strategies that administrators, teachers, counselors, parents, and students can all try to alleviate test anxiety in a variety of different scenarios.
All of these proposals come from the 2003 published paper Helping Students Cope with Test Anxiety by Henry L. Harris & Doris R. Coy.
The paper was written at the conclusion of a long evaluation of test anxiety in general that was funded by the US Department of Education.
As a result, you may know some of these strategies already!
But if you can walk away with one new idea, you’ll have a new technique to help your students feel more comfortable taking tests.
We’ll start by discussing the ways that administrators can help alleviate anxiety in students.
1. How Administrators Can Help
Administrators typically don’t interact with students directly. Naturally, there are some exceptions, but teachers, parents, counselors, and fellow students are much more likely to have face time with a student than an administrator.
So what can administrators possibly do?
As with many parts of running a school, administrators can take an indirect approach to alleviating test anxiety.
These three strategies can help:
- Building a relationship with parents
- Offering school-wide practice tests
- Encouraging counselors to talk about test anxiety
Building Relationships with Parents
Administrators have excellent opportunities to build relationships with parents.
PTA meetings, school board meetings, and after-school events are all ideal chances for administrators to meet and mingle with parents.
These relationships may not seem significant at first. Maybe the whole relationship only amounts to a few exchanged words.
But those few words can also open the floodgates for parents to talk about their children, their experiences in education, or how the administration plans to address different issues in school.
The goal of these relationships is to keep an open dialogue about the parents’ child as they progress through school.
Information about personal hardships or challenges can help place a student’s testing performance into perspective, especially if that student is in danger of failing one or more classes for the marking period.
But when principals, assistant principals, and other administrators can have an open dialogue with parents, they can all take action in the home and school to get to the root of the problem with a student.
When that happens, the student benefits from the relationship that their parents and school administrators have built together.
Offering School-Wide Practice Tests
Administrators can take a slightly more direct approach by endorsing school-wide practice tests for major assessments.
Offering practice tests for the SATs, certification exams in CTE, and other high-pressure assessments can help students get acclimated to the feeling of taking a test.
That, in return, helps eliminate the fear of not knowing what a test may entail or feel like during the real deal.
It may take some cash out of the district budget, but it can also dramatically improve test scores by helping students understand what to expect on test day.
Encouraging Counselors to Talk about Test Anxiety
Finally, administrators can address their guidance counselors to keep their doors open to talk about test anxiety.
As it stands, it’s a challenge to talk about feelings like anxiety because there’s often no tangible cause for anxiety in the first place.
In the event there is, like with test anxiety, it’s still all too common for students to feel “dumb” just because they also feel anxious.
As a result, students may repress their feelings or hide the fact that they get anxious on test days.
Socially speaking, taking an F on an exam could be more tolerable than exposing themselves as the victims of anxiety.
That’s where counselors can really help. They meet with many students already, so speaking to those who do well in class and poorly on tests is a natural step to identifying students with test anxiety.
By informing guidance counselors of that fact — and equipping them to address test anxiety with students — you make your school a place of openness, understanding, and positive action.
2. How Teachers Can Help
Teachers are perhaps the most obvious choice for helping students with test anxiety.
They’re the ones who see the same students every day. They see the grades and behaviors of their students in the classroom.
Many of them may even have a “sixth sense” for struggling students because of their experiences in the classroom already.
So if they haven’t already ironed out the tell-tale signs of test anxiety, these are the three that teachers should know:
- Being aware of signs of text anxiety
- Discussing test-taking strategies
- Discussing test anxiety openly with administrators and counselors
We’ll start with the easiest concept — becoming aware of test anxiety red flags!
Being Aware of Signs of Test Anxiety
The first and most significant sign of test anxiety is when students do exceptionally well with classwork, homework, and projects, but then do poorly on assessments.
You can discover this behavior by looking at the pattern of students’ grades throughout your class. If you see three bombed tests or quizzes, but the rest of a student’s grades are flawless, you know something’s amiss!
Next, you can note when certain students claim to feel ill or in pain. Test anxiety can sometimes be so severe that it manifests as nausea, chest pain, and even migraines.
If you have a student who constantly needs to go to the school nurse on test day, they may not be trying to get out of a test.
They could be so anxious that they’re in physical pain!
Finally, test anxiety can all too easily meld into long-term depression. If you see students start the year peppy, excited, and eager to learn, take note!
If they start to appear “slowed down” or exhausted, it may not be a bad night’s sleep — it could be the cumulative effects of test anxiety.
Discussing Test-Taking Strategies
Another way teachers can alleviate test anxiety is to present students with test-taking strategies.
These strategies can be simple or complex.
The simplest test-taking strategy is to arrive early to the testing area. This allows a student to get accustomed to the testing room and get into the mindset of taking an exam.
A complex test-taking strategy could be establishing a regular study schedule. This requires students to get into habits every day (or weekday) of reviewing information they learned in class so that it becomes second-nature to them on exam day.
Discussing Test Anxiety Openly with Administrators and Counselors
The last way teachers can help with test anxiety is to talk about it openly with administrators and counselors.
Ignoring test anxiety does not make it go away. In fact, ignoring test anxiety only makes it grow more prevalent.
When you can address the topic with your administrators and counselors, you all get on the same team with the same goal — helping students succeed on tests.
3. How Counselors Can Help
After teachers, counselors are the next most-likely individuals to directly interact with students who have test anxiety.
Counselors may already be in touch with students experiencing any range of difficulties in life from a hard time at home to a challenging time adapting socially.
However, test anxiety is a slightly different beast.
It’s something that comes up rarely — at least compared to generalized anxiety — and students may not even realize that they have it.
So when counselors can acknowledge that students struggle with test anxiety, it can open whole new opportunities and remedies!
Overall there are three main ways counselors can help alleviate test anxiety:
- Offering time and availability to discuss test anxiety
- Promoting relaxation techniques
- Encouraging students who beat test anxiety to talk
First, let’s talk about your time.
Offering Time and Availability to Discuss Test Anxiety
As a counselor, the #1 offering you have for students is your time.
Opening your doors to students who experience test anxiety — or even “get butterflies in the stomach” on test day — can help a lot of students who otherwise wouldn’t seek out the help themselves.
There’s always the chance that you’ll have no takers when you open your doors to anyone.
But if you can get just one student into your office to talk about test anxiety, you’ve done them an enormous favor that can change the trajectory of their academic career!
Promoting Relaxation Techniques
Relaxation is an excellent way to counteract test anxiety.
But how can students relax when they’re already feeling anxious?
One of the best relaxation techniques is simple breath control. When students can slow down their breathing, they can also slow down their heart rate.
That stops the “pounding in the chest” feeling that some students can get, and it can even help settle a nauseous stomach.
Most importantly, it allows students to think clearly before they start a test, placing them in a superior state of mind than feeling anxious.
Other short-term strategies can include counting to 10, doodling (when available), and visualizing test questions in the mind.
Long-term strategies include journaling, drawing, scribbling, regular exercise, regular sleeping hours, and reading for fun.
Encouraging Students Who Beat Test Anxiety to Talk
It’s not always easy for a student to open up to an adult.
That’s why it’s so important to know which students in your school have successfully dealt with test anxiety already.
You may not be able to see eye to eye with students in need 100% of the time.
So when you can’t, you can ask students who’ve already overcome test anxiety for their time and mentorship of other students.
This is an excellent way to help students that are particularly tough cases because it opens them up to a new social relationship while showing them that test anxiety is a conquerable hurdle.
Plus, you just might jumpstart the friendship of a lifetime!
4. How Parents Can Help
More than anyone else on this list, parents tend to have the most direct contact with students.
After all, they’re parents.
Their natural parenting instincts and care for their child makes them ideal for talking about test anxiety.
However, parents are in the unique role of being able to do more than talk.
Parents can model and enforce behaviors. They can change habits and routines.
They have the chance to truly make a difference in students’ lives outside of school.
Parents can do this in three ways:
- Ensuring regular school attendance
- Encouraging students to rest while at home
- Contacting school officials with concerns and ideas
Let’s start with the most important idea — ensuring a student has regular attendance at school.
Ensuring Regular School Attendance
If a student is going to succeed in school, they need to be at school to start.
Ensuring regular school attendance is crucial for students to continue learning and, as a result, be prepared on test days.
Frequent absences make it difficult for students to keep up with classwork and curriculum.
Add that on top of being anxious during tests, and you have a student in an exceptionally tough area.
They’re not at school, so they can’t learn the material.
Then, they freeze up during tests because they haven’t been at school.
They fail the test. They retake the class. And the cycle repeats.
But when parents ensure their children are at school every day, students can break that cycle and move into a brighter and better education.
Encouraging Students to Rest while at Home
American students are stressed.
In fact, when it comes to stress symptoms like depression and anxiety, just 4% of students aged 13 to 17 say that anxiety and depression are “not a problem” in their lives.
In fact, a whopping 70% of those students say anxiety and depression are each a “major problem” in their lives!
There are a lot of challenges at work here. Some of it may be behavioral health. Some of it may be social life. Some of it may be home life.
But parents can help by providing safe, relaxing environments for their children at home.
This kind of environment is proven to help students succeed in school, especially when parents and teachers collaborate on learning goals.
Overall, if a parent can turn home into a welcoming and safe place for a student, students can begin working toward a long-term solution.
Contacting School Officials with Concerns and Ideas
Let’s face it — sometimes parents don’t have all the answers. It’s an unfortunate truth of the world we live in. But sometimes, parents just wing it and hope for the best with their children.
This is especially true if parents aren’t comfortable discussing certain topics with their children, like anxiety or depression.
In the event a parent recognizes the symptoms of test anxiety in their child, they can always get in touch with school administrators and counselors to approach the issue.
This is a solid solution for any parent who feels uncertain about how to help their child.
Plus, with a team of parents, administrators, counselors, and even teachers, students’ lives can quickly change for the better.
5. How Students Can Help
At the end of the day, test anxiety hits students the hardest. Unfortunately, they can’t always depend on their academic, social, and personal support networks to address issues like test anxiety.
So how can students help themselves or each other?
Students can take the initiative to act in three different ways:
- Establishing a routine sleeping schedule
- Learning about test length and duration
- Practicing controlled breathing
Let’s start with the most important idea of regular sleep.
Establishing a Routine Sleeping Schedule
One of the most important parts of good academic performance is a regular sleep schedule.
Students who have healthy, routine sleep do better in school than those who have brief, sporadic sleep.
Sometimes parents can enforce bedtimes. But the choice of when to go to sleep is ultimately left to the student.
If you’re feeling worn out, anxious, depressed, or foggy, the solution may be to get more sleep on a regular cycle.
This doesn’t always solve an issue like test anxiety. But it can at least help place students in a healthier and more productive frame of mind during school.
Learning about the Test Length & Duration
Students can also take the time to learn details about tests they’ll have to take.
Standardized tests will always come with the number of questions students can expect and the amount of time that students have to complete the test.
These two factors are game-changers. It lets you look at practice tests in entirely new ways.
Instead of taking your time on a test, you can see which parts of a test take you the longest to complete.
You can also look for test sections that are easier.
Regardless of what you find, you can then approach the test with a completely different strategy.
For example, if it took you 10 minutes to complete 30 multiple choice questions at the beginning of the exam, you know you can zoom through the first section in no time.
Then, you can dedicate the remainder of your time to completing the test sections that gave you a greater challenge.
You can also take another approach of attacking the most difficult portion of a test first, then jumping to the parts that you found easy.
This is helpful because it lets you set a time limit to the hard part of the test so you’re never caught off-guard by having an incomplete test section.
So if you have 60 minutes to complete the test and 45 minutes have gone by, you know you have five minutes left before you have to tackle the first 30 questions that are easy!
Practicing Controlled Breathing
Finally, it’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of breath control.
Breath control simply helps you control those involuntary responses you may have to tests and other sources of anxiety.
Is your heart pumping fast? Breath slowly to help it normalize.
Are your hands shaking as you’re holding your #2 pencil? Breath slowly to stabilize it.
Are your thoughts racing through your head at a million miles per hour? Put your pencil down, straighten your back, close your eyes, and breathe.
It may not work 100% of the time, but this is an anxiety-coping mechanism that’s worked for thousands of individuals.
When you control your breath, you have a better chance of controlling your anxiety.
So with all of this said, you have an entire repertoire of anxiety-coping strategies regardless of how you relate to a student’s academic experience.
But are there any classroom resources that can help?
The answer is simple — yes.
Digital Curriculum: Test Prep, Certification Help, & More
Digital curriculum can help students deal with test anxiety by helping teachers establish a blended learning environment in their classrooms.
Digital curriculum can help teachers differentiate their instruction to accommodate individualized education plans (IEPs), students working at different paces, and even remediation.
Best of all, digital curriculum gives you options like automatic grading and student data tracking so you can identify the patterns of test anxiety early.
Do you want to explore using digital curriculum in your classroom?
Click below to learn more about it!