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When Donna heard that her English teacher was going to give daily
quizzes on Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, she panicked;
By: Dr. Boris Vytautas Bakunas, PhD
When Donna heard that her English teacher was going to give daily quizzes on Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, she panicked. “I can’t take tests,” she blurted out. “My mind just goes blank.”
On test days, twelve-year-old Andrew could hear his heart pounding the moment he walked through the classroom door. As his muscles tensed and his stomach churned, he felt increasingly anxious and confused.
Worldwide, tens of millions of students at the elementary, secondary, and university levels suffer from debilitating test anxiety. In fact, researchers have discovered that the longer students stay in school, the more likely they are to become test anxious.
Educational psychologists Paul Eggen and Don Kauchak have defined test anxiety as “a relatively stable, unpleasant reaction to testing situations that lowers performance.” In many instances, test anxiety can become so severe that it leads to academic failure, loss of self-esteem, and missed educational and career opportunities.
Test anxiety is not just limited to students. Many highly-accomplished, successful adults also dread taking tests. When the editors of Esquire magazine invited some of New York’s leading cultural celebrities to a fancy Manhattan hotel to take the Scholastic Aptitude Tests as part of a feature article they were planning, only P. J. O’Rourke, at that time the editor of the satirical magazine the National Lampoon, agreed. How did some of the others respond?
David Halberstam, American Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author, and historian recoiled in horror. “That’s the cruelest idea I ever heard of since the Chinese water torture!”
Gail Sheehy, best-selling author of Passages and 15 other books, cried out, “Oh, Jesus! Oh God! I don’t think I can take this.”
The Two Faces of Test Anxiety
Psychologists now recognize two sides to test anxiety: emotionality and worry. Physically we experience emotionality in several ways, including muscular tension, rapid pulse, dry mouth, upset stomach, and even nausea.
As distressing as these physical symptoms feel, they are relatively benign when compared to the real culprit in test anxiety – worry.
When test anxious students – and adults – fill their minds with thoughts about the consequences of failure and the embarrassment it would cause, they have little attention space in their working memories to devote to problem-solving.
Working memory is that part of the mind that does verbal and nonverbal tasks such as reasoning and comprehension. It has often been likened to a computer screen because it is where conscious information-processing occurs. And just like the computer screen on your desk, it has a limited capacity. The average adult can hold about seven (plus or minus two) unrelated bits of information in mind at any one time. A second important limitation is that a person cannot perform two unrelated mental tasks simultaneously. Just try to say the words of a song you know by heart out loud while adding a pair of two-digit numbers like 37 plus 45, and you will see how reciting the lyrics blocks your ability to solve the addition problem.
When people suffering from test anxiety fill their minds with task-irrelevant cognitions like “What if I fail? I couldn’t bear it!” or “What makes me think that I’m smart enough to write a dissertation,” they overload their minds with distracting and useless information. To extend the computer analogy, it’s as if they fill their minds with malware, and their minds operate in a slow, sluggish fashion, or even appear to shut down completely.
Recognizing Test-Anxious Students
Sometimes test-anxious students are easy to spot. Consider the experience of Robert, a chemistry teacher at a suburban high school in the United States, who had been assigned the job of monitoring ACT testing for students aspiring to gain admission to college.
”An hour into the exam, one kid got sick to his stomach and ran to the bathroom to vomit. Several others complained of very bad headaches. One nearly fainted.”
Some of the signs of test anxiety are behavioral. Whenever Matthew took a test, he charged into it like a racehorse. When the rest of the class had barely finished writing their names on their papers, Matthew would be handing his in. Asked if he studied, he muttered, “Yeah, sort of.”
Cynthia was just the opposite. Give her a test, and you would have to pry it loose from her fingers. A close look at one of her math tests showed that she utterly failed to budget her time. The first few problems were done in great detail while the rest where skipped altogether.
Students like Matthew avoid study and test-taking situations, while those like Cynthia are immobilized with fear by them. Several studies of test-anxious students have shown that as a group, they lack study and test-taking skills. Because they display many of the behaviors of students who lack self-discipline, these test-anxious students are frequently overlooked. In addition, some teachers simply refuse to admit that test anxiety is a real phenomenon, insisting that it is no more than an excuse for laziness. Yet ask these teachers how they feel when their teaching is being evaluated by a school principal or department chair, and they readily admit to being extremely nervous.
What Teachers Can Do to Help
Before giving a test, make sure that your classroom is quiet, well-lit, and free of distractions. Post a sign on your classroom door saying “Testing in Progress” and directing visitors to return later.
Stock your classroom with extra pencils, pens, calculators, and other materials your students may need. Teach your students an orderly procedure to follow in obtaining these items.
Allow time to review the day before and immediately prior to a test. Quiz students on key terms, concepts, and applications. Give them a chance to leaf through their texts and ask you questions they think might be on the test. Also, provide pointers on how they can identify important content, e.g., italicized terms, chapter sub-headings, and tables and graphs.
Give practice tests. Uncertainty is a breeding ground for anxiety. Students who know what expect are much less likely to worry.
During tests, give clear and precise instructions. For example, if you require that students answer questions using complete sentences, tell them so explicitly and emphatically. Write a sample complete-sentence response on the board next to one that is incomplete, and highlight the difference.
Give untimed tests. In one study, test anxious fifth and sixth graders made three times the number of computations errors when asked to solve simple arithmetic problems than they did when time pressure was removed. If a few students are still working when the class period ends, allow them to finish at a later prearranged date.
Use different kinds of assessment and a variety of test formats. This will improve the accuracy of the semester grades you obtain from your students. It will also give them a wide range of test-taking experiences.
After tests, avoid social comparisons and public displays of grades. Use high-frequency errors to re-teach concepts, principles, or operations students have failed to master. Analyze common mistakes with the class and show how they can be corrected.
Interview students who have done poorly. Ask them how they prepared for the test and what they can do to improve their performance next time. Some schools offer free tutoring for students who need extra help.
Teach study and test-taking skills as formal lesson plans. You’ll be surprised at how many students, even at the university level, fail to engage such basic strategies as systematically reading directions or reading all potential responses on multiple choice tests before answering. Among other skills, I recommend teaching students how make and use flashcards to learn important terms, how to highlight key sentences that convey main ideas as well as summary paragraphs. Be sure to allow your students time to practice the study skills you have taught during class sessions so that you are there to verify that they actually study and can offer help when needed. Pairing students with a study partner and allowing them to quiz each other the day before a test will make studying more enjoyable and effective. Once students see from their own experience that studying improves their grades, you can gradually phase out the time you devote to studying in class.
Keep your eyes open for signs of test anxiety. If a student appears frustrated or extremely tense, approach and offer assistance. Many students want help, but are afraid to ask. Be on the lookout for such warning sighs as rushing through tests, dawdling over a single difficult question, and complaining of stomachache, headache, or dizziness before a test.
No matter what you do, there will still be students who need more assistance to manage test anxiety than you can give in a regular classroom. Refer such students to their counselors or school psychologists for help. Also, contact the parents and tell them that their children may be suffering from test anxiety. Ask if the students are bringing textbooks home to study and check if they have a quiet place to study without interruption. Also, caution parents to avoid placing too much pressure on their children.
In many parts of the world, students and teachers are under enormous pressure to raise test scores. Ironically, such pressure may actually lower the scores of anxiety-prone students. By learning more about test anxiety yourself, and by creating a classroom climate in which the need to achieve does not subvert your primary goals – helping your students learn the content you teach and develop a positive attitude toward learning – you will help them develop learning and coping skills that they will help them for the rest of their lives.
Bakunas, B. (1993). Putting the lid on test anxiety. Learning, 22, 64-65.
Eggen, P. E. & Kauchak, D. (1977). Educational Psychology: Windows on Classrooms. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Hill, K. T. (1984). Debilitating motivation and testing: A major educational problem – possible solutions and policy applications: In R. Ames & C Ames (Eds.) Research on Motivation in Education (pp. 245-274). New York: Academic Press.
Ottens, A.J. (1984). Coping With Academic Anxiety. New York: Wilson.
Spielberger, C.D. & Vagg, P.R. (1995). Test anxiety: Theory, Assessment, and Treatment. Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis.
Williams, Janice E. (1996). “Gender-Related Worry and Emotionality Test Anxiety for High-Achieving Students.” Psychology in the Schools; v33 n2 p159-62.
Zeidner, M. (1998). Test anxiety: The State of the Art. New York: Plenum.
|Dr, Boris Vytautas Bakunas is an educational psychologist and independent consultant specializing in individual and group performance improvement. His article “Helping Students Overcome Test Anxiety,” is based on a graduate, professional-development course he developed, which he teachers through St. Xavier University/International Renewal Institute.|
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