I have a small confession. I suffered from two types of anxiety in school: public speaking and taking tests. I bombed the ACT (twice) and the MEAP (Michigan’s statewide standardized test) my senior year of high school. On paper, my low scores made no sense coming from an A/B student. Looking back on it, I blamed (and still blame) my performance on the high levels of stress I felt walking into those tests after nights of restless sleep (a result of worrying about the upcoming tests). I knew the cause of my poor scores and I knew that if I had a chance to work on the test questions in a non-test setting, I’d do much better. But that wasn’t an option for me. My anxiety prohibited me from doing my best and there wasn’t anything I could do about it.
The Mayo Clinic defines anxiety as a mental disorder that is “characterized by persistent worry about major or minor concerns,” (www.mayoclinic.com/health/anxiety/, 2013). Symptoms of general anxiety include feelings of apprehension, powerlessness, increased heart rate, hyperventilation, trembling, and sweating. Can you imagine a simple test causing these physiological symptoms in your students? Chances are, you’ve had students in your class that have experienced anxiety at one time or another. And chances are greater that you didn’t even know it. I know none of my teachers ever knew that about me.
When students suffer from anxiety, they struggle to focus on anything else, especially being tested on new skills and concepts. So, as teachers, how do we notice these symptoms and try to reduce the anxiety that our students may face on a daily basis?
1. Assess in more ways than one. Don’t make every test a lengthy, timed, pencil-and-paper, individual assessment. Those are usually the ones that psych students out the most. If every assessment is given in that rigid and daunting style, some students will eventually shut down and their scores will only become a lesser representation of what they actually know. That being said, some students may suffer from anxiety when it comes to public speaking or working with other classmates, so make sure you alternate the types of assessments and group work assignments you give, too.
2. Allow time for students to relax and visualize before being assessed. Visualization techniques are one of the many home remedies for dealing with stress and anxiety.
3. Encourage open discussion. If a student shows any of the above symptoms of anxiety, especially while testing, encourage that student to talk to you, other teachers, or a counselor about what they are experiencing. It is important for students to know that they are supported if they are experiencing anxiety in their learning environment.
4. Give them a second chance. This last one is much easier said than done. If you sense a student failed a test because of anxiety rather than a lack of preparation, make the time to give that student another opportunity to show you they mastered the material. It could be as simple as going over the test and making corrections in front of you, or solving similar problems in a separate, more relaxed setting. Meanwhile, work with this student to find strategies to reduce anxiety during class so that they have the most successful year possible.
With high-stakes testing being close to the end-all-be-all of public education these days, it is important for students to realize the importance of doing well on tests. However, we don’t want this realization to take the form of anxiety and stress in our kiddos. Yes, that means that in addition to being an “educator” we now also take on the role of “physician” in trying to recognize anxiety. But if we want our students to be successful, and more importantly, feel success in their educational careers, we need to support our learners in every way possible.