So you’ve determined that your students have test anxiety and you want to learn how you can help them reduce their fear of testing? Here are several of the most effective strategies available to help elementary, middle school, high school; even college students overcome test anxiety. By familiarizing students with all of these strategies, and providing opportunities for them to practice, students will be better able to determine not only which strategies they are most comfortable using, but which strategies have the greatest impact on reducing their test anxiety.
Anxiety and negativity are akin to the old chicken–and–egg situation: does our anxiety cause us to make negative statements to ourselves, or is it the other way around? Our negative self-statements create the anxiety. Let’s just say that test anxiety and negative self-talk are inextricably linked; that if you find an anxious student you will probably also find a student who is telling him or herself that he or she is going to fail. Positive self-talk is a simple strategy that can help students break this vicious cycle. It involves creating several positive, yet realistic statements and repeating these statements to oneself in an anxiety-provoking situation. Some examples of positive self-talk are:
- I can do this.
- I know this material.
- I have practiced this material.
- I’m intelligent.
The trick to using this strategy is for students to keep the statements simple and to have them practice using them prior to any test-taking situation. You don’t want them to have to come up with the statements at the moment they are confronted with the test!
There are essentially two types of creative visualization that can be used to help combat test anxiety. Let us call the first type the Safe Place Method. This method will require students to conjure a mental image of a place, either real or imagined, that is both relaxing and safe.
- Close your eyes.
- Calm your breath.
- Picture your safe place.
- Look up and down and to the left and to the right of your safe place.
- Take notice of what you see, smell, and feel.
The second visualization technique we will call the Olympic Method. This method, often used by athletes, requires that an individual imagine what they are trying to achieve; whether it be crossing the finish line first, hitting a home run, or acing a test!
- Close your eyes.
- Calm your breath.
- Picture yourself confidently taking the test.
- Remember another test on which you did well.
- Imagine yourself receiving a high test score or grade.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Anxiety has both a psychological and physiological component. Muscle tension is a common response to test anxiety that can be minimized by using progressive muscle relaxation. This method involves focusing on and then tensing and relaxing large muscle groups in a particular order.
- Begin at your toes. Tighten or clench your toes and hold for three to five seconds. Release.
- Move upward to your feet, calves, thighs, and so forth. Tighten each muscle group for five seconds, then release.
- Once you have moved through your body, take a few deep breaths.
It is a rare person indeed who has never experienced shallow breathing when in an anxiety-filled situation. In fact, shallow, short breaths are a universal indicator of someone who is overwhelmed by anxiety. Practicing controlled breathing is a simple yet powerful way in which to deal with all kinds of anxiety.
- Sit comfortably.
- Place your hand on your stomach.
- Breathe gently in through your nose for a count of four.
- Let your breath expand your belly. Observe your stomach rising.
- Breathe out for a count of four.
- Observe your stomach flattening.
No doubt you will have noticed that all of the aforementioned techniques have to do with changing what we say, what we see, and what we feel. The mind and the body are woven tightly together like a carpet, and often, all one needs to do to unravel the pattern of test anxiety woven into the fabric, is to pull on one tiny thread. In order for these strategies to be successful, however, students must routinely practice them, especially in non-test taking situations. Familiarity and proficiency with these methods will empower students and give them the extra tools they need to do their best.
For more tips on how to reduce test anxiety, check out the Prepare & Practice for Standardized Tests series for grades 1-8. Each book in the series presents test-taking strategies and anxiety-reducing tips. Practice tests are also included and cover grade-specific, standards-based content with test questions similar in style to those found in current standardized tests.