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What is test anxiety?

Test anxiety is when someone feels anxious, nervous, or worried about an upcoming assessment or project. This can lead to headaches, an upset stomach, or other physical symptoms.

Test anxiety is fairly common. It’s completely normal to feel a slight sense of nervousness when taking some sort of test. However, when we put too much pressure on ourselves, it can be detrimental.

What causes test anxiety?

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, test anxiety in students stems from three things:

  1. Fear of failure. Sometimes we put so much pressure on ourselves to do well that our fear of failure can overcome us. Students may be prepared, but fear can derail their self-confidence.
  2. Lack of preparation. Without a solid grip on the content for an upcoming test, students might become stressed because they know they’ll probably do poorly on the test.
  3. Poor test history. Students who have had trouble testing in the past are prone to develop test anxiety. Instead of looking at the possibility of improving on the next test, they develop a negative mindset and doubt their talents. For example, they might think, “If I couldn’t pass the last test, why will this one be any different?”

Are some students more prone to test anxiety?

Yes. Students who are often “perfectionists” have a higher chance of developing test anxiety because they hold themselves to unrealistically high standards. They find it hard to accept mistakes and anything less than perfect from themselves. That pressure to do well can cause students to become stressed.

Students who care about doing well but who aren’t prepared for tests are more prone to test anxiety as well. Not being prepared could stem from a lack of sleep, a gap in understanding the content, or not studying enough.

How can I help my students reduce their test anxiety?

  • Share good study habits. Many students cram for tests the night before. We’ve all done it, but you can encourage your students to not make it a habit. Instead, encourage them to study in small increments leading up to a test.
  • Emphasize that one test does not define who the student is. Remind your students that a test is only a test. It does not define someone’s self-worth. Let your students know that doing poorly on a test does not represent the end of the world.
  • Share relaxation techniques. Have your students stand up and shake out any tense muscles before a test. Have them close their eyes and breathe deeply. Let them know that everything will be okay.
  • Encourage students to get enough sleep the night before. A good night’s rest can make all the difference. Encourage your students to get to bed at a reasonable time the night before a test.
  • Open your door to students. Let your students know that you’re always there to listen.

Looking for more suggestions? Check out the S.M.I.L.E. method to further reduce students’ test anxiety.

Why does it matter, anyway?

Assessments are important. They’re used to measure student growth and proficiency. They help identify what’s working and what needs to be adjusted. However, test anxiety can muddy assessment results, painting an inaccurate portrait of performance. If a student does poorly on a test but knows the content, the results don’t accurately reflect that a curriculum is working or that the student is growing. By acknowledging test anxiety and using techniques to minimize its effects, we can do our best to minimize the chance of that happening.

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