Dealing With Test Anxiety

December 10, 2021 
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Who likes to take tests? Certainly not Ezra who fidgeted as his teacher passed out a genetics test to his Biology class. While the class got quiet, the noise of Ezra’s pounding heart and racing thoughts got louder. “Why did I even bother studying? I’m just going to forget everything as soon as I look at the first question….like always.” Soon, though, only one thought remained: “Not good. Not good. Not good.” 

Nauseous and overwhelmed, Ezra grabbed his pencil and zoomed through the first few questions. So far, so good. He moved onto the next question and started to spiral again. His mind went blank and time ticked away. “I’ll never figure this out,” he thought. Ezra started randomly circling answers before looking up to see that, unlike him, his classmates were not having a major freak out. Defeated, he wondered, “Why can’t I be more like them?”

What is Test Anxiety?

Definition and Causes. Even though there isn’t an audience while you’re taking a test or a quiz, it’s still a kind of performance. Anxiety in these kinds of situations is known as performance anxiety, although test anxiety specifically occurs when the fear of failing a test negatively affects your grades. There are several reasons why someone might experience test anxiety, such as inadequate preparation, perfectionism, low self-esteem, or a history of performing poorly on tests. In addition, girls and those with learning differences (gifted, learning disabilities) are more prone to test anxiety.

Symptoms. Test anxiety can manifest itself as various physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms. Physically, for example, you might feel your heart race along with feeling nauseous, sweaty, and shaky. Test anxiety also affects you emotionally, including feelings of inadequacy, anger, hopelessness, and low self-esteem. These feelings and thoughts influence the way you behave, so those experiencing test anxiety might fidget a lot, attempt to get out of taking tests, completely blank while taking tests, or think negative thoughts about themselves. Everyone has experienced some form of test anxiety, like butterflies before a big exam, but more severe symptoms that significantly impact performance or cause panic attacks are a sign to seek out additional help.

Strategies and Solutions for Parents and Students

If you are a parent of a child who experiences test anxiety, here are some ways you can help:

  • Listen to your child’s concerns and focus on the positive instead of any setbacks. Remind her that she is not alone: 60 percent of students report having test anxiety with 25 percent experiencing it regularly, according to the 2014 National College Health Assessment.
  • Suggest strategies that might help, such as creating a more balanced schedule with enough time reserved for studying or setting up a weekly study plan to review material before a test. 
  • Make sure your child knows how he or she will be tested (e.g. multiple choice, labeling diagrams, short answer) to make it easier to practice in advance.
  • Help your child figure out the study methods and test-taking strategies that work best for him. Identify his strengths and nurture them.
  • Seek out additional help, especially if your child may need support services (e.g. IEP, 504 Plan, counseling).

Students can also help themselves using the A.P.L.U.S. method:

  • A – Ask for help. Talk to your parents, teachers, or school counselor about your test anxiety. These people can offer support and help you access resources like tutors and accommodations.
  • P – Perspective rather than perfection. Accepting mistakes and learning from them is healthy and human. Don’t forget to reflect on and build on your strengths, too! Recall other times you were able to overcome anxiety (e.g. nerves before a big game or speech) and apply similar strategies to taking tests.
  • L – Limit negative self-talk. Fix the broken record of “I can’t” or “I’m going to fail” with “You can do this” and “You are ready to do your best.” 
  • U – Unload your worries. Purge negativity and destress by free writing your worries before a test and loosening your muscles or breathing deeply throughout a test. Visualization techniques can be helpful as well.
  • S – Study effectively. Having enough time to study, using study methods that work for you, knowing how you will be tested, developing routines for before a test and during a test, and practicing with real test questions will boost your confidence and reduce anxiety.

Getting Help

When strategies alone aren’t enough to address test anxiety, it’s possible to receive more professional help. Psychologists and school counselors can help diagnose test anxiety and develop strategies to address it, including getting accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

In “The Americans With Disabilities Act and Test Anxiety: When Accommodations Are Appropriate,” Constance Burke explains that it’s challenging to receive accommodations because there is still debate about whether test anxiety should be considered a learning disability under the ADA. However, there’s a chance some accommodations can be granted under two conditions:

  • Provide proof of a pre-existing disorder that meets DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) criteria, such as social phobia, general anxiety disorder, or panic disorder. 
  • Prove, through documentation (e.g. self-reports, observation, professional evaluation, academic records) that the disorder specifically affects test taking in a way that significantly limits the major life activities of thinking (e.g. concentrating during a test) and working (e.g. passing tests required for a career such as the SAT, GRE, PRAXIS, or LSAT exams). 

Final Thoughts

The American Test Anxiety Association reports that 18 percent of students experience moderately high test anxiety while as many as 20 percent experience high test anxiety. Fortunately, there are strategies, accommodations, and people available to help.

A+ Test Prep and Tutoring recognizes how stressful it can be for students and parents to deal with test anxiety. To support students taking tests for their classes and for college admission, A+ offers academic tutoring, test prep tutoring, and executive function coaching.

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you want to find out more about our services, our Client Service Directors Joelle Faucette and Michelle Giagnacovo can be reached at 215-886-9188.

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