Last night I anxiously dreamt that today I was scheduled to take both an in-class math test and an Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus exam. Being that I haven’t actually taken a math class in nearly 20 years, I was very anxious about not being prepared.
I have these types of dreams when as an adult something is giving me anxiety, and the fact that we live in such “unprecedented” times probably has something to do with last night’s particular episode. As such, for most people without a serious medical condition, I think it’s helpful to know the Google definition of anxiety:
a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.
This definition means that for most students the feeling of test-taking anxiety is normal and not necessarily a bad thing. It is normal for anyone to fear the unknown, and it is especially normal for students to fear having to take a “high stakes” test like the ISEE, ACT or, SAT.
The American school system starts testing students at a young age, and students are aware of the connection between test scores and private school admissions (ISEE/SSAT), college admissions (ACT/SAT), and overall academic success (ERBs, STAAR, etc). With all of these assessments and the high stakes US society places on the outcomes of these tests, it is understandable to see why students are nervous about big exams.
However, some students are more anxious than others and can experience debilitating levels of anxiety. Their anxiety surrounding testing can be so profound that they lose all ability to focus which can result in incomplete tests and consequently lower test scores.
Understanding the Psychology of Anxiety
Test anxiety is a student’s reaction to these primary factors:
- the test-taking environment (both physical and emotional),
- self-awareness about their ability to handle those environmental factors, and
- their views on the importance of certain scores and how those results will affect their future.
Anxiety is the emotional reaction to uncertainty towards possible outcomes of a situation. Contrast anxiety with fear, which is an emotional reaction to external factors that the individual knows they cannot handle. This ambiguity elicits the fight-or-flight response caused by test-taking anxiety.
As a fight-or-flight response, test-taking anxiety releases excessive adrenaline to the nervous system. This adrenaline causes increased heart rate, shaky hands, loss of focus, and in extreme cases even panic attacks.
Students experiencing test anxiety will even occasionally “blank out” on a question, experiencing a phenomenon in which their thoughts seem to completely freeze and they are unable to answer the question. In this scenario, the students become even more flustered and will either skip the question, hoping that the next one is easier, or waste time blankly staring at a question without doing anything.
In an environment that requires concentration and calm nerves, these symptoms limit a student’s ability to put forth their best effort.
Psychology research shows that somewhere between 16% and 20% of students experience test anxiety, which seems to stem from focusing on the wrong aspect of schoolwork. All students experience negative emotions during courses, but not all students react to those emotions the same way:
- Non-anxious students generally see test performance as directly resulting from concept mastery.
- Anxious students tend to focus on the test itself at the expense of concept mastery.
This response is the opposite effect from what educators intend, as most tutors and teachers would agree that it’s more important for the student to learn as a lifestyle than it is to perform well for a brief period on a specific standardized test like the ISEE, ACT or, SAT.
Helping Students with Testing Anxiety
It can be difficult for friends, educators, and even parents to understand the issues facing an anxious test-taker. However it is important for the people surrounding the student to understand the gravity of the student’s situation as the student could be living a nightmare.
Fortunately there are many concrete steps parents and educators can take to mitigate anxiety:
- Empathize with students by attempting to understand their dread.
- Ensure that students realize that test scores are just one part of a holistic review process.
- Focus students’ efforts on ensuring that they are very comfortable with the tested concepts.
When followed correctly, these steps can be very successful; a meta-analysis of test anxiety interventions reported that behavioral changes in students results in significantly decreased test anxiety, with as many as 75% of previously anxious students later reporting that their anxiety had dissipated.
Empathize without Trivializing
Statements like “just get over it” and “come on, this isn’t that big a deal” are not helpful.
In fact, if outsiders say or do things to demonstrate that they are unconcerned, then the student may feel even more anxious. This unintended consequence occurs because now students feel like they are the only person who is so concerned about the test. They may be worried about why they cannot seem to control their anxiety when everyone else around them seems so calm.
Realize the Importance of a Holistic Application
Anxious students have a misplaced focus because their views of tests are skewed narrowly towards the outcomes. It is important that they reposition that focus not on a single test but on understanding and embracing the many factors that weigh into school admissions.
School and college admissions counselors repeatedly reveal that a standardized test score is never the sole determinant used in an admissions decision, but only one part of a picture also heavily depicted by grades, activities, and essays.
Beyond simply the school admissions process, students need to realize that growing up and getting an education is a marathon, not a sprint. Learning how to learn is far more important than being able to quickly regurgitate facts and figures at a precisely determined time.
Focusing Test Prep on Concept Mastery
Successful behavioral changes are mostly dependent on the student studying in a way that promotes retention and mastery of the subject material, rather than simply memorizing facts to recite on paper to then quickly forget. Students should remember that the better they internalize the test material, the more comfortable they will be during the test. They could join study groups, skim through class notes every day, and most importantly start preparing early!
Test anxiety is also a product of feeling underprepared, so students should make sure to study effectively over the long term versus cramming in the short term. Not only does cramming for a test not work, it can make students feel much more hurried and anxious.
Another helpful preventative measure is for parents and educators to help students harness the normal amounts of anxiety they experience in the time leading up to a major test as a driving force for preparation and studying.
If the student focuses on the upcoming exam and is mindful of the anxiety they will likely experience, then they may be more motivated to study ahead of time and actually focus on learning concepts instead of cramming tips and tricks.
While it may be difficult for outsiders to comprehend, many students find themselves overcome with panicky test anxiety when preparing for and taking a high stakes exam like the ISEE, ACT or, SAT. Fortunately for most students, this anxiety can be mitigated with proven strategies and behavioral changes.
- Test Anxiety can seriously limit test-taking abilities and should be addressed as early as possible.
- Parents and educators must be careful to empathize with students to prevent causing more anxiety.
- Student behavioral changes like better understanding the admissions process, preparing early, and preparing well can be very effective.
Piqosity’s test preparation resources for the ISEE, ACT or, SAT can help reduce testing anxiety by familiarizing students with the test, ensuring mastery of tested concepts, and estimating a test-day score with strengths and weakness analysis.
This article is an adaptation originally written by Matthew Rottman in 2015 when he was a tutor and graduate student in psychology at Rice University. Mr. Rottman is now a management consultant.
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