Dealing with Student Test Anxiety

Recently I wrote a post about academic language and preparing students for tests by ensuring they are familiar with the test vocabulary and question styles you will employ. Nevertheless, I have noticed that even when I have prepared students for tests, some still manage to struggle.  Prior to the test, they seem to know the meanings of various test verbs and will even scoff at the idea that some question styles might cause confusion. But, during the actual test, they somehow freeze. Too often, well-prepared students will raise their hand during a test and still ask puzzling questions such as:

  • “So, when you ask me to list the reasons why this happened, are you looking for a list?”, or
  • “In the paragraph-answer section, are you looking for sentences, or should I write a bullet points?”, or
  • “When you ask for one example, are you looking for four?”

Anxiety might be the problem here. Some students get so stressed that they can look at simple question and become convinced that it is a trick, or you are actually looking for deeper, more-profound information.

Maybe the test stakes are too high. I usually keep tests down to a maximum of around 30 points, or to a small percentage of their overall quarterly grades. I don’t want students to have a bad day and ruin a whole quarter.

Maybe in their academic past, students encountered a teacher who actually was trying to trick them. You might know a colleague who uses those frustrating multiple-test questions with answer options such as A, B, C, A and B, A and C, B and C, All of the Above, None of the Above.

Or, the answer options are all identical, save for one tiny detail. For instance:

The influential book Common Sense was written by:

a) Tomas Paine,

b) Thomas Paine,

c) Thomas Pain, or

d) Thomas Pane.

I am not one to judge what goes on in the classrooms of my colleagues. But, when students get burned by tricks, or by stakes that are dangerously sky-high, the impact waves spread out and impact all other classes.

Dealing with Test Anxiety

It might be a good idea to research the causes of test anxiety and work with students, prior to assessment, on strategies for easing that anxiety:

Provide information about the test

Share with students, in advance, the organization and structure of the test or quiz – number of questions, number of points, style of question (Short answer? Fill in the blank? Multiple choice? Essay?), tools required (Pen or pencil? Calculator? Notes? Scratch paper? Protractor?), the point value of each question, amount of time provided, etc.

Create a study schedule

Encourage students to begin studying well before the test date. Show them how to break up the unit into smaller chunks and tackle each chunk day-by-day. That way, if additional information or notes are needed, the student has the time to acquire and process them. And, stress understanding information versus simple memorization.  

Positive thinking

Some students sabotage their success with self doubt. It might be necessary to build some self-esteem boosting into your advisory or homebase activities early in the school year.

Debunk Test Myths

I found this list online from an organization called Educational Testing Service  ( that contained an interesting list of common myths that students might believe about tests. Some of the myths include:

  • The first question is always a trick to throw you off.
  • For multiple-choice questions, the same answer never appears more than three times in a row.
  • Difficult questions are worth more than the easy ones.

Other myths I found online were:

Being nervous during a test signifies a lack of preparation.

  • On a multiple-choice test, once you choose your answer, don’t ever go back and change it.
  • Also for multiple-choice tests: when in doubt, choose the longest answer.
  • For True or False questions, there are usually more True answers on most tests.

I have no idea where these kinds of ideas come from, but students get them into their heads and they really shape decision-making. Take the time to debunk these myths and assure students that there are no trick or easy gimmicks for success.

Testing is just one tool teachers use to gather evidence of student knowledge and understanding. Testing helps teachers (and students) determine where the student is at a given moment in time and what they might need to do to improve. But, if the results are going to be useful, they should be as accurate as possible. Help students provide the best data by ensuring they are equipped to deal with anxiety and prepared to deliver exactly what is necessary.

If you have any test preparation strategies you regularly employ, I would love to know about them.

Hi 5!

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