Test Anxiety and Ways to Manage It
We all know that test anxiety is real. As educators, tutors, and parents, we can only hope that there are ways to manage this piece of a nuisance. For parents out there dealing with children suffering from test anxiety, it can be quite vexing. First, many of us fail to understand what test anxiety is and how widespread it is. Then, there is the question of recognizing the symptoms and diagnosing them. Next, we have to identify the causes and find suitable treatment. In this comprehensive article, we shall take you through all these aspects related to test anxiety or school anxiety so that you are well-equipped to deal with any child suffering from it.
What is test anxiety?
Technically speaking, it is simply a student’s reaction to stimuli of a test situation or an evaluation, prompted by their past experiences of being in similar situations. Psychologists will tell you that a certain degree of exam anxiety in students as such can be a positive thing making their minds sharp, alert, and attentive. However, this article is not about that kind of school anxiety. It is about the sort of volatile test anxiety that descends on a student and causes more damage to performance than good. If not managed in time, there are symptoms that can become counterproductive. We are going to tell you all about it and how to manage it.
What test anxiety can do to students
School stress and test anxiety can be quite debilitating for some students with a history of anxiety disorders. Student anxiety can manifest in physical symptoms like headaches, nausea, diarrhea, excessive sweating, light-headedness, and dry mouth. Some students have a more psychological response. For example, drawing a blank on certain concepts that they would have had no trouble remembering before the exam.
By the way, student stress and student anxiety aren’t limited to studies. Young people in sports get so nervous before big games that they seize up and fail to deliver. Think Ron Weasley missing every goal in his Quidditch keeper tryouts even though he was a talented player otherwise. Music students break into a sweat and muck up their recitals. It is a phenomenon that can surface in any activity where there is an evaluation or a test situation.
What studies show about test anxiety or school anxiety
Anxiety disorders affect about 18% of adults according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). But it is estimated that in young people (13 to 18 years of age) this number shoots up to 25%. Student anxiety can cause them to do poorly in school tests which then causes them more anxiety subsequently. If left untreated, this vicious circle can snowball to dangerous levels with time.
Studies reveal that test anxiety manifests differently in different people.
A more distressing statistic reveals that exam anxiety has been on the rise with the increase in standardized tests. We are talking about ACT, SAT, GMAT, and GRE type exams. Therefore, test anxiety is indeed an important area of study in educational psychology.
One study found that test anxiety plays out differently in students depending on their working memories. Those with good memories performed better in tests when they had test anxiety. However, those with low working memories got bogged down by exam stress.
The science behind test anxiety
Hormonal factors – “fight or flight”
The culprit is the adrenaline. Under stress, our bodies release this hormone called adrenaline whose job is to prepare us for danger. This response to danger stimuli is referred to as “fight or flight”. When a student suffers from exam stress, adrenaline causes the body to increase heart rate, sweat profusely, and breathe heavily. These sensations might be mild or intense. The real job of adrenaline is to reduce the sense of pain with urgency.
In recent years, a lot of research has gone into finding ways to measure the cognitive dimension of test anxiety through psychometric testing. There is indeed an emotional and psychological component to test anxiety that manifests in several different ways that we shall examine separately.
Detecting the Symptoms of Test Anxiety
Exam stress leads to clammy palms, sweating, increased heartrate, dry mouth, dizziness, and nausea. One often describes all these symptoms all put together as “butterflies” in the stomach. But exam anxiety can even take a more serious turn with symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting.
You may observe that a student is experiencing unusual memory problems and low concentration. You may even sense that their thoughts are getting jumbled up or that they are unusually indecisive. Particularly when they are doing their homework, you will observe that they’re unusually confused about solutions in their exercises. These are student anxiety red flags that point to a negative response to school stress.
A host of concerning attitudes we see in school-going youngsters these days are actually closely linked with school stress. They include missing classes, dropping out of school, drug abuse, disrespecting teachers, and unruliness. These are all linked with a fear of failure and an inability to cope with expectations. When such students are put in a test situation, they don’t take it too well and may eventually develop avoidant personality traits.
A student may show signs of depression, increased sense of dejection, low self-esteem, and temper, as a direct result of school anxiety or exam stress.
Those around such students should be on the lookout for these signs so they can help with early diagnosis and intervention.
Causes of test anxiety
Academic stress is often caused due to performance expectations set by parents and teachers. Other reasons are the expectations that students impose upon themselves and an irrational desire for perfection. Self-imposed student stress comes from being strongly attached to an outstanding result, such as straight A’s in all subjects, and believing that they haven’t prepared enough for it.
Fear of failure
The fear of failure to reach a certain standard adds up to a lot of pressure in students resulting in a great deal of exam anxiety, leading to poor performance and more resultant school anxiety. This vicious cycle can lead them to a chronic feeling of helplessness.
Past testing history
Students who have a history of poor performance in past tests tend to demonstrate a negative reaction to tests, assessments, and exams. In such cases, they either avoid these situations or deliberately attempt them ill-prepared.
If a student does not prepare sufficiently, he/she will likely suffer from exam anxiety. The outcome of the tests matters to kids and poor performance even on one occasion will seem unimaginable. Sometimes, students may feel they needed just a little bit longer to finish their test. Not having that time leads to so much stress that they fail to make the best of what they already know.
Poor time management
This is a sort of panic attack that hits the student after the test begins. It happens when the student gets caught up in answering one problem and does not realize time is running out. By the time they do, it is too late. They are in a full state of panic.
Learning to recognize behavioral symptoms
Students suffering from test anxiety tend to demonstrate certain types of behaviors. Often, private tutors are the people who spot such learning issues. Their close one-on-one relation with the student puts them in a position to do so more effectively than even parents and teachers. If your child has a tutor, make sure you are in constant communication with her/him. Learning to spot them early will help you manage or treat the problem before it gets worse.
Freezing or “going blank” during tests
Ever heard of a student forgetting a crucial formula in the middle of a Math test? This can happen even when they have had plenty of practice. Test anxiety makes them suffer a brain freeze during tests.
A student may procrastinate preparation until the night before the exam. This may be a sign of stress. However, procrastination may be a chronic problem too. If you find students constantly dragging their feet about homework, it shows that they are either struggling with it or that they are disengaged from their school education altogether. It is always a good idea to probe deeper and encourage them to share their experience with you. This could be another case of school anxiety.
If a student remarks smugly, “I got poor grades because I didn’t prepare”, this is a sign that they are trying to hide behind that excuse. This way, they have a ready defense in the face of inevitable poor performance. It shows that they are anxious about being evaluated and worried about failure proving their incompetence.
Worrying about retention
Is your child constantly worrying he/she is going to forget all the study material during the exam? Then perhaps the child has already experienced it and fears that it will happen again. This is a sure sign of test anxiety or student anxiety in general.
Never prepared enough
Some children put in all their waking hours into preparation and still feel they haven’t studied enough. Before the exam, they tend to stay up all night revising multiple times in order to be ready for the test. When the day arrives, they still have no confidence that they are adequately prepared. This is another typical pattern of test anxiety.
Baseless fears due to low confidence
Ever heard a student say things like, “I am not intelligent”, “I suck at studies”, “no matter how hard I study, I am going to fail anyway”, “I am a loser”, etc.? Well, these are baseless fears that often stem from childhood experiences that affect the child’s confidence and self-esteem. It could be the result of parents’ harsh judgments or constant comparison with siblings, etc. As they grow up, this lack of confidence graduates in test anxiety and school stress.
Children suffering from school stress or exam anxiety are generally preoccupied with doomsday thoughts. They stress in anticipation of dramatic failures and sometimes even absurd fears like, “what if my memory gets wiped out?”. While it may sound amusing, it actually points to a more serious manifestation of acute exam stress.
Difficulty concentrating during preparation
Fear of failure is a common behavior that normally pushes the student in the right direction to focus on studying. However, a preoccupation with failure is counterproductive behavior because all the study time is spent getting overwhelmed with the task in hand rather than tackling it.
Strategies to manage test anxiety
There are several strategies that can help reduce test anxiety and mitigate the negative impact on performance. In the following sections, we lay out some of them.
Getting systematic with studying can go a long way towards avoiding the exam anxiety negativity loop. If you know that the child has a school anxiety problem, then you must address this much before the eve of the exam. You can do this by ensuring help with homework, regular practice, regular assessments, etc. Getting a private tutor can solve much of your study management issues.
Studying can have two purposes. One is focused on learning new concepts just for the purpose of knowledge. The other is focused on grades, scores, and performance. Studying from an exam point of view involves going through the material keeping the typical question patterns in mind. Additionally, focusing on topics selectively based on the test, giving attention to time management skills, knowing shortcuts for solving problems, memorization hacks are part of the ballgame. Test prep tutors are adept at training students on test-taking strategies. These can be effective in helping students with exam anxiety to avoid a panic attack.
An early start to prepping
It is a smart approach to study a little every day and over time rather than stuffing your brain cells all at once on the eve of the exam. Last-minute studying is like balancing all the material on the tip of the nose. It is sure to give the best of us exam stress and is totally avoidable.
Repetition and revision
Repetition and revision are the best methods to improve retention and develop long-term memory. The difference between the smart and the not-so-smart students is simply revision. What one revises gets firmly imprinted on the brain even if one doesn’t realize it then. During an exam, this memory will serve the student well. Therefore, tutors and parents must build a structured revision plan for children with test anxiety.
Have pre-test routine
There is comfort in routine. It is particularly helpful for students with exam anxiety problems. Adhering to a routine gives them the confidence that “everything is under control”. The study-revise- eat-sleep-wake routine should be set and followed before every exam.
There are students who listen to a particular favorite song before the exam that takes their minds off stress. Similarly, sports, exercise, meditation, a favorite TV show, etc., can help reduce student anxiety. It may be a good idea to have about 30 mins of any one of these activities a day before exam day.
Eat, drink, sleep
These are essential ingredients of a properly functioning body and mind. Adequate sleep on the day of the exam is an absolute must particularly for kids with exam stress because it affects short-term memory, energy levels, and performance. There are techniques to fall asleep that students must learn. Eating a light healthy meal and staying hydrated is essential for optimal body functioning.
Finally, for students with acute test anxiety, psychotherapy is the way to go. If the student isn’t responding to any of the above measures, it is best to seek professional counseling. Professional mental health workers are trained to get to the bottom of the complex psychology of students suffering from acute exam stress.
If your child is suffering from school stress, the last thing you want to do is to get stressed about it yourself and unnerve the child. Learn to recognize the symptoms early and take steps to help the child manage school stress. As explained above, private tutoring can be part of the solution to exam anxiety and school stress. We at ViTutors offer you a platform where you can select highly qualified tutors for your child, available for all budgets and skill levels.