Sixteen to 20 percent of students suffer high levels of anxiety before a test, and another 18 percent struggle with moderately high anxiety, making it the most common cause of poor educational performance, according to the American Test Anxieties Association.1 A variety of issues with teachers, study environment, subject matter and motivation can also contribute to poor test performance. High school teachers can't control all these factors, but we can help our students better prepare for tests by addressing some of the most common causes of test anxiety and poor performance.
Teach Test Anxiety Management Tips
Negative test experiences often trap students in a self-perpetuating cycle of test anxiety fueling poor performance. This especially affects students who are coming from troubled family backgrounds or who are trying to learn in hostile social environments. You can't fix all these issues yourself, but you can contribute to a solution by providing students with tips on managing test anxiety.
Test anxiety can have contributing physical causes. Hunching over to read, write and text takes its toll on students' posture. Show students how to sit up straight. Demonstrate the difference between good posture and slouching, and let them know how poor posture habits can trigger muscle tension and make studying and test-taking more difficult than they need to be.
Rapid, shallow breathing can also enhance anxiety symptoms. Encourage students to slow down and take some deep breaths before study sessions and tests, or any time they start to feel anxious.
Racing, unfocused thoughts are another element of anxiety. Teach students the principle of staying focused on one thing at a time and ignoring distractions for a set time period. Mental fatigue can also make it harder to focus, so be sure to teach students to take periodic breaks as well.
One way to teach these skills to include short focus sessions in class, such as brainstorming writing exercises or oral discussion, broken up by short mini-breaks. You might pause to tell a story or a joke after 10-15 minutes of intense focus on a topic. If students have trouble focusing for this period, start with shorter 2-5 minute intervals and gradually build up.
Help students apply these focusing principles to tests by suggesting they approach study sessions and tests in the same way. For instance, a test with three sections can be approached as a series of three focus sessions broken up by a few seconds of stretching and blinking to reset the body and brain.
Encourage Students to Set Study Goals
Encourage students to get in the habit of blocking out scheduled amounts of study time to learn specific things. For instance, if study hall is 45 minutes long, students can plan to divide the period into three 15-minute chunks, each with a specific goal. Provide customizable charts where students can fill in their study goals to encourage them to get in this habit. Help students connect this with test-taking by getting them to identify study goals to be achieved in preparation for tests.
Offer Mnemonic Aids and Shortcuts
Over the years, educators have developed numerous shortcuts and memory aids for tasks such as spelling, multiplying and memorizing the periodic table. Be familiar with the mnemonic aids and "tricks" used for the subjects you teach. Teach students how they can develop their own mnemonic aids by using methods such as anagrams, memory pegs and phonetic number systems. Show students examples of how these strategies can be applied to improve recall before tests.
Teach Study Strategies
Student study effectiveness can be enhanced by adopting strategies such as underlining, outlining and note-taking. Teach students how to spot keywords and phrases that merit underlining, how to identify the organizational structure of material they read, how to organize their own thoughts into an outline and how to record their thoughts as organized notes on index cards or in a notebook. Provide assignments and in-class exercises that give students opportunities to practice these skills. For instance, you can photocopy a section of a textbook and give students an assignment to underline what they consider the most important ideas and reconstruct the author's organizational outline.
Allow and Encourage Adequate Review
Provide frequent in-class review sessions during which students can ask questions about areas they need to brush up on before tests. Encourage students to schedule their own review time to test their own knowledge and identify material that need extra attention.
Teach Test Management Strategies
Teach students strategies that make optimal use of test time. Good time management and successful test-taking go hand in hand.
When applicable, allow students to bring their own review sheets to tests, or alternatively, to spend a couple minutes at the beginning of a test to jot down their own notes. Explain the principle of skimming an entire test first to get the big picture before digging into details. Stress the importance of reading instructions and questions completely and making sure these have been understood before proceeding with answers.
Teach students to work through multiple choice questions slowly and read all options before answering. Show students how to use process of elimination to narrow down multiple choice options. Explain how making an educated guess can sometimes improve your odds. For essay questions, show students how their underlining and outlining skills can be applied to understand the question and outline the answer.
Emphasize the idea of prioritizing which questions to answer first. Let students know that sometimes it's strategic to skip hard questions and come back to them later. Remind students that if they finish early, they can use the remaining time to double-check their answers.
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