Maureen Lamb, a teacher at Kingswood Oxford School in Connecticut, can see the telltale signs of test anxiety the moment her students enter the classroom. “They're flustered,” she said. “And there's a lot of negative self-talk as they walk in, like, ‘I don't know anything. I can't do this.’”
Getting nervous at exam time is normal. But test anxiety becomes a problem when students’ cognitive skills are “short-circuited by the worry,” said Dr. Ellen Utley, a psychiatrist and an advisor at The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on suicide prevention and young people's emotional health. High anxiety can impair students’ performance by impacting the executive function skills that enable them to focus attention and access memory, Utley explained.
To support students who are prone to being overwhelmed by tests, Utley recommended that schools urge students to avoid all-nighters and marathon study sessions in favor of healthy habits. “Schools can really message around good nutrition [and] good exercise as having a positive correlation with doing well academically,” she said. “So they're not just focusing on good grades or studying as the only way to do well.”
When it comes to test preparation, which can reduce students’ feeling of test anxiety, teachers have a role to play. “When students feel like they are prepared for an assessment, they are far more likely to do well and not have their stress reach that level where they won't perform as well as they had hoped,” said Lamb, the high school teacher. She offered advice on how to design assessments and assignments that reduce students’ unease and help them put their best foot forward.
“A lot of them won't ask for help in managing this type of stress. They'll just try to push forward,” Lamb said. “Giving students the tools they need for preparation is really one of the best things I can do.”
The Three Fs of Assessments
When it comes to giving out assessments, Lamb makes sure to satisfy her three Fs: familiar, focused and flexible. This framework can support learners in preparing for tests and developing a better relationship to testing.
When an assessment is familiar, students are not blindsided by the test’s content or format. Homework assignments are a low stakes way to prepare students for test content. “It's just students getting that practice in to make sure they're familiarized with the materials,” said Lamb. She no longer grades homework, but she gives students what she calls “the playlist” every night. The playlist includes an ungraded set of optional assignments like Quizlet online flashcards, a quiz, a review video or a game related to the material they are covering. “They can spend their time how they think it would be most effective,” Lamb said.