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Dealing with Test Anxiety: Part 1

As a teacher I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from parents how nervous and anxious their child gets when they are about to take a high stakes test. This is usually the same student who has done all their work and behaves in class.  Yet when it comes to taking a test they are usually quite ready to freak out and psych themselves out of a good grade before they even sit down for the high stakes test. Test anxiety is a real problem today in schools because of what it is doing to our kids and what it is doing to their grades.  Thankfully there are a few ways in which it can be dealt with.  In almost every instance, especially in the early grades at middle school and high school, it starts with parents being knowledgeable about what their children can do to relax and succeed on high stakes tests and quizzes.  In this article I have outlined several actionable tips that can be used to help your child deal with test anxiety. Obviously there are a large number of factors that play into why a student experiences certain test anxiety before any type of test or quiz they may be facing.  Throughout the course of these articles I will try to hit on the major issues that can lead to this test anxiety and what can be done to combat each of them.

This first part will focus on what, in many cases, can be a quick and easy fix for test anxiety that many students live with today.  The idea behind this concept is simple:

When students understand the material they will have confidence in themselves and feel far less anxious about the test they are taking or studying for.

Obviously it isn’t an end all be all quick answer or solution but this first topic we will cover can go a very, very long way to alleviating many of the anxious and stressed feelings students experience before, during, and after a test.  It is something that is practiced by the top students in every class on a daily or weekly basis whether they realize it or not.  It is the reason I have students come in feeling ready to go for a test, feeling completely confident in their ability to succeed on it.  Though not the sole reason for test anxiety I have seen this solution be a major help to many of my students who struggle with mild to severe cases of test anxiety.

The fix to which I am referring is simply the art of test preparation, better known as studying.  When students study correctly they understand the material.  When students understand the material they will have confidence in themselves and feel far less anxious about the test they are taking or studying for.

I know it sounds so obvious as to be laughable yet simply studying and preparing for a test can make all the difference in the world for a huge number of students.  However, this simple answer requires far more explanation than you may think it does.

In short, I would say (and obviously there are exceptions to this) the vast majority of students who suffer from test anxiety do not prepare well enough.  While not always the cause of the anxiety, it greatly contributes to it in almost every case I have ever dealt with.  In short, if your son or daughter suffers from test anxiety I would be willing to argue that they are more than likely not preparing properly for tests.  Again, that doesn’t apply to everyone but it is more than likely an issue.  I know you will say they study hard and work tirelessly so they can do well but I have to say from experience that most times the students don’t know how to study properly.  In many cases also, the parents seem to not be aware of what exactly their child considers “studying”.  If you’ve never thought about it before now, please think and consider, what exactly does your son or daughter do while studying?  How do they study? What do they study?  Where do they study?  How long do they study?  With whom do they study?  In my experience as a teacher I must be honest; I have rarely met a parent who can answer even 2 or 3 of those questions, let alone all of them.

The first step in truly helping your student prepare for a test in hopes of beating test anxiety involves being able to answer the questions asked above.  Now, since I know most parents haven’t exactly been students in high school for quite some time I realize that proper study habits might be something forgotten or perhaps never truly known before.  So, with that in mind, I’m going to give you a brief rundown of what constitutes “bad” studying first and then what is “good” studying.

First, let’s talk about what is “bad” studying for a test by looking at time spent, study environment, distractions present, and several other factors.

  • Cramming is bad –  A major problem with students studying today is that they simply do not understand the time required to study and fully master material they will be tested on.  It takes time to learn things, cramming is almost always going to lead to anxiety and poor understanding.
  • Studying with distractions is bad – Studying while watching TV, texting with friends socially, randomly hanging out on Facebook or twitter, listening to music (sometimes, this depends a great deal with the individual child), or even simply studying in a busy part of the house all constitute serious distractions.  If your son or daughter is studying in one of these environments, put a stop to it.
  • Hanging out with friends and calling it studying is bad – Going over to a friend’s house, meeting at the coffee shop, or meeting after school somewhere to study often leads to a whole lot of “not studying” going on.  Obviously study groups can be a great tool for students to learn from however in most cases today study groups end of being at best a poor use of unfocused study time to at worst simply being an excuse for kids to hang out together with no studying at all.
  • Looking at the review guide once and calling it good is bad – Simply looking at a test review guide one time or spending half an hour looking at the solutions to some sample problems or concepts doesn’t cut it in most classes past 8th grade.  Most classes these days require real preparation.  Simply looking at some answers for a few minutes doesn’t even come close.

Now let’s talk about what good studying is and how you can fix the “bad” studying:

  • Not waiting until the last night is good- The first thing to do is not wait until the night before a test to study.  Slowly but surely reviewing material little by little every day will go a long way towards helping improve a student’s understanding of material.  As a reminder: When students understand the material they will have confidence in themselves and feel far less anxious about the test they are taking or studying for.
  • Limit social interaction unless it truly is study time-  As stated above most times high school or middle school study groups end up being about social time rather than study time.  However, if you can get a group of hardworking and dedicated kids together who all want to succeed on a test and can resist the temptation to simply talk about whatever a study group can be hugely beneficial.  The challenge is simply finding the right group.
  • Don’t do the minimum and think it is enough – Make sure your kids spend enough time studying to make it worthwhile.  Don’t let them off easily.  Ask them what they studied, what they looked at, and how much time they actually spent on it.  There is no easy path to understanding and learning.  It takes time and it takes hard work.  If it was easy, there wouldn’t be any test anxiety.  To see 7 great and specific ways to prepare for tests, check this out. 
  • Pay attention in class more – Though obviously not a study tip specifically this basic idea can go a very long way in helping your children feel much better prepared and knowledge about the material.  It prevents that sticker shock that many of them feel when they go to start studying for a test having paid little attention in class for the past week.  It can make all the difference.

As a reminder one more time: When students understand the material they will have confidence in themselves and feel far less anxious about the test they are taking or studying for.

I hope these ideas will prove useful and meaningful to you in helping your child deal with test anxiety.  As you can see this article focused specifically on a quick fix that you as a parent can try to start helping with today in your child’s schooling.  However, test anxiety can sometimes be a bit more complicated than simple preparation and study habits.  The next part of this article will focus more on the non-school aspects of a student’s life that can contribute greatly to test anxiety and what can be done to combat them.

As always, I hope what you have read here helps you and your family.  If you think it does, please don’t hesitate to share it with others who you think it may help.