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There’s no such thing as a bad test taker, but anxiety is real

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A student journals her response to a writing prompt in a tenth-grade English class.
 (Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages)

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.


For the past two years, Lamb has given her students an optional practice test before every graded test. Although it has different questions from the graded test, students who take the practice version get an opportunity to hone the skills that will be assessed and get familiar with the test format. Lamb found that practice tests remove students' fear of the unknown and make it easier to study without feeling completely overwhelmed. “A tiny bit of stress can be a motivator,” she said. “When it's too much stress, I find that students shut down. So as much as possible, I try to keep students from shutting down by managing expectations.” 


Overly broad assessments can confound learners because their brains have to go in many directions to access the information they need. A focused assessment concentrates on checking students’ competency in a handful of skills at one time. “Clarity is kindness,” said Lamb, who only tests students on two or three skills per assessment. For example, she might give her students a test that covers just reading comprehension and writing. 

Narrowing the focus also makes practice tests more useful because they target the same skills as the graded tests. When students receive feedback on practice tests it gives them information about where they need to study more. Additionally, Lamb leaves comments on practice and graded tests to help students identify learning gaps

“Timely feedback makes a huge difference in whether or not students understand how they did and why they [performed] that way,” she said. Whether it's after a practice test or after a graded exam, students can schedule time with her to talk through any feedback and figure out where they need more support.  


Lamb offers students an optional retake exam with different questions from the original. Because Lamb provides prompt feedback, retakes can be scheduled during the week following the test so that students don’t feel like they’re falling behind.

Perfectionism and high stakes can contribute to test anxiety, so providing students with another chance to show what they know can give them agency over their assessment and reduce pressure. Also, Lamb knows that students have lives outside of class that can affect their test performance. “Sometimes students are going to be able to come in and give their best work. Sometimes that's not going to happen,” Lamb said. “Sometimes they are just coming from a math test [or they’re participating in] two sports.” 

Many teachers may balk at the thought of creating practice, graded and retake assessments – a total of three tests per unit, but Lamb said it’s time well spent.  “I make [all the assessments] together at the same time,” she said. “It does take more time, but it is so worth it to have students feel better about the testing.”

Additionally, Lamb includes three ungraded questions at the end of her assessments so students can reflect on their test-taking experience and communicate any important information to her. She asks students:

  • What did you find success with?
  • What did you find challenging?
  • What do you want your teacher to know?

Students have used the questions, particularly the third one, to inform Lamb about life events like a death in their family or that they had a test in another class on the same day. Once in a while she’ll read an answer unrelated to the test. “One student told me that they don’t like my shoes,” Lamb said. But criticism from students doesn't keep her from seeking their feedback so she can find better ways to assess their learning.


“We're asking our students to do things that are challenging and scary every day,” Lamb said. “Putting ourselves in an opportunity to have a growth mindset as teachers – just like we want our students to have a growth mindset – is really important.”

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