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Virginia Journal of Education

High Anxiety!

How teachers can help ease their students fears when taking tests.

By Deborah Kipps-Vaughan and Ashton Trice

We’d like the tests we give students to accurately reflect what they’ve learned and how well they can apply their knowledge. However, many variables influence test-taking, including a student’s health, distractions, and social stressors in the student’s life, as well as feelings of fear and anxiety about performance. Teachers can do little about some of those factors, but we can help students conquer their fear of tests and help reduce the negative impact this has on performance.

Test Anxiety
Test anxiety consists of thoughts, feelings and physiological reactions students experience when they’re very concerned about poor performance in testing situations. It’s an extreme form of arousal, which at low or moderate levels can actually boost performance. However, when arousal reaches the level of test anxiety, it undermines performance. Children may experience a racing pulse and begin sweating, or feel faint and nauseous, all of which distracts them from the task at hand. Worry about their performance interferes with memory and ability to solve problems. Students may slow down or even give up entirely.
Test anxiety is an equal opportunity problem: it affects boys and girls and students from different ethnic and income groups equally, although students who are learning English or are having reading difficulty are more anxiety-prone than others. In the short term, test anxiety appears stable—it has been shown not to go away all by itself over the period of a year or two. But the good news is that it is sensitive to interventions, many of which can be implemented by classroom teachers. Our discussion here will be divided between addressing instructional approaches and actions that are more mental-health focused.

Instructional Interventions
About 10 percent of elementary school students experience test anxiety. These children not only get anxious about high-stakes tests such as Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests, but they also experience similar levels of anxiety on classroom tests. Teachers, however, tend to notice children’s anxiety more when the stakes are high for them, as well.

Prevention is the best approach. Prevention includes both things to avoid and things to do. Children take on the anxiety of the adults around them and so it is important not to overemphasize high-stakes tests. A school psychology student a few years ago here at James Madison University did his thesis on test anxiety in third-graders getting ready to take their first SOL tests. There was a remarkable difference in the rates of test anxiety in the different schools he observed. In the school with the highest test anxiety, every corridor had banners urging student to do their best on the upcoming test; the principal’s announcements always ended with reference to the tests; and students spent time every day in test-taking coaching sessions. While motivated by good intentions, these appeals can help create fear and often backfire. At the school with the lowest test anxiety (and highest SOL reading scores), the third grade immediately prior to testing days was focused on reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

This is not to say that practice tests and coaching are not useful. Particularly, it is helpful to give students some experience with longer tests, unfamiliar item types, and strict start and stop times. The key word here is some—not every day for a month immediately before the test. This experience does not have to be on simulated SOL tests. Unfamiliar types of items (such as multiple choice items containing “none of the above” or “all of the above” options) can be worked from time to time into teacher-made quizzes, for example. A language arts and a social studies quiz can be given on the same day, back to back. Giving students occasional quizzes that are too long to complete in 15 or 20 minutes can be framed as “speed challenges.”

Teachers can also help students learn simple ways to manage their test anxiety when it crops up. Simple methods such as closing one’s eyes and counting 25 breaths when one feels stress building up can prove beneficial. Counselors and school psychologists can provide individual interventions for those who need further help with anxiety.

Mental Health Interventions
Everyone experiences some level of stress when taking a test. However, if a student reaches a point of test anxiety where he or she is focused on the outcome rather than the specific test questions, fear begins to interfere with performance. It’s helpful to consider practices that may be introduced into the classroom that help manage stress. If activities are presented and practiced at times that are separate from the test-taking process, students can acquire a set of “tools” to use to manage test anxiety when needed. Instructional time is very valuable and there seems to never be enough to cover all that is required, but the simple exercises presented here do not involve much time, and may be a very valuable benefit for the limited time investment required. It is also feasible that these techniques can be introduced during classroom guidance activities, so teachers may ask for the support of a school counselor in introducing these exercises.

The first technique we suggest is the practice of deep breathing. This is so common and simple to use that it’s often overlooked and under-used. Practicing breathing and relaxation techniques in the classroom on a periodic basis can build students’ automatic physiological response of calm and concentration, which is one of the most powerful ways we have to address anxiety. Deep breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system and switches the physiological response in the body into a calmer state. As mentioned earlier, this may be introduced when working with one student, but can also become a practice with the entire class.  It’s good for everyone, even teachers! The teacher would instruct students to sit in a comfortable position and breathe in and out slowly, taking about 3 seconds for a) breathing in, b) holding the breath, and c) breathing out. Some students may prefer to breathe using their nose, some their mouth, whatever works best for each individual is best. Tell them to count their breaths, and try to think only about their breath, for a designated amount of time. It may be best to begin with one minute and then increase over several weeks up to five minutes. Teachers may let students know that it’s “time to take a breath” and have a minute to several minutes of breathing time at various periods throughout the week. When students become familiar with the practice, they can be encouraged to use this anytime they are feeling nervous or worried about working on a task in class, including taking tests.

Another technique to introduce as a weekly activity is the practice of positive self talk.  The teacher would ask each student to write a sentence describing what they think about themselves when taking tests, and then write a feeling word to describe how the sentence makes them feel. Then the teacher can introduce some other thoughts about test-taking that are true and maybe more helpful, such as: “This is hard, but I will be okay,” “I can stay calm even when I am taking a test” or “I will do my best and that is all I need to do.” Each student may be given an index card to write a new sentence emphasizing a positive thought about testing. The teacher can prompt the students to read their cards at different times during the day, each day and before taking classroom tests. This prepares the student, prior to high-stakes test-taking, to think more positive thoughts.

To expand on the idea of research with the third graders who read Harry Potter prior to testing days, a less time-intensive joyful activity could be engaging students in a stretching and silly activity prior to testing. This may involve something like reaching to the sky like a tree, soaking in the sunshine, then feeling a gentle rain fall on the leaves (hands of the students), and then acting like a squirrel just ran up their trunk and is sitting on their head. The students would then shake off the squirrel, let their leaves fall (bending at the waist), and then straighten up and stomp down their roots into their ground below them. They finish by stretching their arms out to take in all the good energy in the woods and wrap their arms around themselves for a big self hug, saying aloud, “I am made of good stuff.” Teachers have great imaginations and can revise this exercise to fit the culture of their classroom, but it is a great way to begin a test.

Students experiencing test anxiety often have a history of academic success and may set unrealistic expectations about their performance. They may also have perfectionist tendencies.  Teachers can reassure them and offer clear expectations regarding performance. We often assume that students understand what is expected, when actually they may have a very different idea about what level of performance they should maintain. This is especially true with the “straight A” student.

Counselors and school psychologists can provide individual interventions, so encourage students to let you know if they have a fear of test-taking or if they are experiencing anxiety about taking tests. They may benefit from a referral to a counselor. Monitor your students for signs of test-taking anxiety by observing them for unexpectedly low performance levels on tests, tense facial expressions, restless behaviors, twitching, and reports of stomachaches or other illnesses. Most teachers are very in tune with their students and may be aware of one who’s experiencing difficulty, but overlook a need to talk with him or her because it may be an individual who generally doesn’t have difficulty. If a teacher observes these behaviors, the student may benefit from an individual conference. The teacher may want to say something like “I noticed you look uncomfortable (or upset), can you tell me what is bothering you?” An anxious student may appreciate the opportunity to talk about what they’re feeling. And then the teacher can try to address any misperceptions or unrealistic expectations.  

However, sometimes students need someone to talk with other than their teacher. The teacher may want to refer the student to the school psychologist or school counselor. Anxiety is often maintained through some faulty thinking. Clarifying what the child is thinking, validating their feelings, and then intervening with positive self talk statements and relaxation techniques can be helpful. If the problem extends beyond this, then parent contact and follow-up is needed.

Managing test anxiety and becoming proficient in taking high-stakes tests is a skill schools should promote for all students. SATs, military assessments, professional examinations, and employment tests are in most children’s futures. We can help students understand that it is natural to have some anxiety about taking tests and some arousal can actually enhance performance. However, it they are having a sense of fear of the test, this can undermine performance and steps can be taken to help address the anxiety. Introducing methods to reduce test anxiety in the classroom provides helpful examples of techniques for students to practice and adopt as their own to manage their feelings before a test. It is our responsibility as educators to help students understand that tests are for the purposes of measuring what they have learned, what needs to be learned, and readiness for the next step in learning or in life. They need not be something to be feared, either by students or educators.

Kipps-Vaughan received her Psy. D. from James Madison University. Her experience includes working as a school psychologist for Halifax County Public Schools in Virginia and providing psychological services as a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. She is currently a professor in the Department of Graduate Psychology, James Madison University. She can be reached at

Ashton Trice taught kindergarten, middle school, and special education before receiving his doctorate in educational psychology from West Virginia University. He is currently in his 18th year of teaching at James Madison University.



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