Test Anxiety

Often expectations for students are unrealistic and this can translate into unnecessary anxiety.  In our attempt to give the children a leg up, we are often doing exactly the opposite.  I am continually made aware of this fact and last week affirmed it yet again. 

Aha moments happen in my classroom frequently. I was giving a benchmark test of the basic facts for my math class.  I could tell the children were experiencing a lot of stress surrounding this test, so I had them stop and turn their papers over to record the feelings they experienced from the time I handed them the test, while they were doing the test, and when I stopped them.  The comments were honest and sad.  The comments were as follows:

  1. “I feel stupid,”
  2. “I hate myself.”
  3. “I can’t do this.”
  4. “I used to know this, but I forgot.”
  5. “I feel stressed.”
  6. “I hate these tests.”

I brought them together in a discussion circle to share their feelings about their experience.   As they approached the circle, one student commented, “We had to do this same test in second grade.”  Another child responded, “We took this same test in first grade.” 

I realized immediately that they brought the anxiety formed in first grade to second grade and now to third grade.

When students are put into a pressure situation before they are ready, they will experience anxiety around that situation for the rest of their lives, unless something or someone helps them realize that the anxiety is based on fear; which is feelings and emotions that appear real but are not. 

The fears surrounding this test were based on anxiety that formed when they were timed in first grade, before they were competent enough to feel any success around the concept.  In this case, it was their basic subtraction facts. 

To change their feeling connected to the timed test, it was necessary to replace what they were experiencing with a new memory.  With their eyes closed, we did a little motor planning with a new way to respond that would later their previous response,  The following was the imagery that was used:

“Realize that you are responding to timed tests, because you were given them before you were ready for them.  It does not mean you are stupid.  You know the information, but you are blocking it when you feel stressed. When you started the test, remember the feeling you had? Your shoulders got tense and you panicked.  We are going to replace that stress and allow the brain to find the information more easily. So from now on, when you feel that feeling coming on, you are to replace it with a deep breath, relax your shoulders and say to yourself, “I know this, it will come to me.  Then skip the problem and see what happens.” 

We practiced it several times.  The next day, they took a test, and they practiced this process.  Every single one of the students found that they did much better and the answers often popped into their head after they skipped them. 

We will continue to practice the new response.  Usually, this process erases previous anxiety and the anxiety eventually disappe