Teaching Students Not to Sweat the Test: Teachers Can Change Some of Their Practices to Ensure That Students Don't Feel Extreme Anxiety at Exam Time

By Salend, Spencer J. | Phi Delta Kappan, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Teaching Students Not to Sweat the Test: Teachers Can Change Some of Their Practices to Ensure That Students Don't Feel Extreme Anxiety at Exam Time


Salend, Spencer J., Phi Delta Kappan


Every student takes tests, whether they're in 1st grade or graduate school. Many of those students will experience some degree of test anxiety, which can negatively affect their grades, promotions, graduation, and post-secondary opportunities (Salend, 2011a). Even though educators are the ones responsible for testing students--and probably creating much of that anxiety--they can also be the ones who help alleviate student test anxiety if they are armed with information and knowledge about useful strategies.

During testing, students experiencing test anxiety encounter extreme levels of stress, nervousness, and apprehension that drastically hinders their ability to perform well and negatively affects their social-emotional and behavioral development and feelings about themselves and school (Cizek & Burg, 2006; Huberty, 2009). Students may have generalized anxiety disorders, but anxiousness over tests is different (Huberty, 2009). Students with generalized anxiety disorders are distinguished by a "trait anxiety," which results in experiencing high levels of stress across a wide range of situations (Cassady, 2010; Cizek & Burg, 2006). Conversely, students experiencing test anxiety have a "state anxiety," which results in high levels of nervousness specific to testing.

A variety of interrelated variables associated with individualized student characteristics, family and peer interactions, and school and classroom practices can lead to test anxiety (Salend, 2011a). These factors include:

* Anxiety, attention, or obsessive compulsive disorders;

* Perfectionist tendencies and unrealistic expectations;

* Negative self-esteem, self-statements, and criticism;

* Poor motivation, lack of confidence, and procrastination;

* Stereotype threat;

* Inadequate study and test-taking skills;

* Poor prior testing performance;

* Pressure from peers, family, and teachers;

* Unfavorable testing environments;

* Invalid, flawed, and timed tests; and

* Ineffective teaching (Cizek & Burg, 2006; Huberty, 2009; Osborne, Tillman, & Holland, 2010).

These factors often interact to create a cycle that results in heightened levels of test anxiety (Cassady, 2010). For example, a student may initially do badly on a test due to inadequate study habits or a poorly developed test, and then experience family pressures and negative self-statements, which collectively increase the probability that the student will experience high levels of anxiety that interfere with subsequent test performance.

Experiencing some anxiety related to testing is normal, and reasonable amounts of stress can even enhance test performance (Cizek & Burg, 2006). However, students experiencing detrimental levels of stress during testing usually exhibit a variety of physical, behavioral, and affective warning signs. (See Table 1.) Educators can assess whether students evidence the warning signs by observing them during testing and interviewing them and their families about their behavior and feelings while preparing and taking tests. Educators, students, and family members also can respond to questionnaires assessing the degree to which the warning signs of test anxiety are present (Cizek & Burg, 2006; Salend, 2011a).

TABLE 1. Possible symptoms associated with test anxiety

PHYSICAL               BEHAVIORAL             AFFECTIVE
SYMPTOMS               SYMPTOMS               SYMPTOMS

Excessive             Difficulties            Making
perspiration          with                    negative
                      concentration,          self-statements
                      attention,
                      and memory that
                      interfere with:

Sweaty palms          * Reading and           Having
                      understanding           pessimistic
                      test directions         expectations
                      and items               (e. … 

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