Taking Stress Out of Tests
How to Keep Anxiety at Bay
By Larry Anderson
Any student can tell you: Tests cause stress. Students who are newto Atlanta, in particular, may feel additional stress from testing. For example, the results of placement tests could impact the course of their education journey, so a lot is at stake. And the anxieties of an unfamiliar school, new surroundings, new teachers and a new community can make testing even more stressful. However, testing is a reality in school environments, including public and private schools, and at any grade level. With any test comes some level of stress for most children. What can parents do to help their children deal with test-related stress?
The Sources of Testing Stress
Dreaded standardized tests can be especially stressful, given their unfamiliar instructions, rigid timing and rules, and general inflexibility. The teacher may even act differently on the day of a standardized test. Private schools tend to put less emphasis on standardized testing, and many educational professionals argue that the whole idea of standardized testing is flawed. In fact, a new law signed last May is aimed at lowering the number of standardized tests taken in Georgia’s public schools.
Related to private schools, new students face testing such as the Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT) or the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) when seeking to enroll. The U.S. Department of Education requires both public and private schools to submit to National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) testing every four years; about 10 percent of schools are tested in any given year, chosen randomly to generate statistically accurate results. But standardized tests are only the beginning of test-related stress. Students may get stressed out about any kind of test, whether a pop quiz, scheduled test, a mid-term exam, or a final exam.
How can parents help? The first thing to remember is that stress is contagious. Parents themselves should be careful not to stress out about testing and inadvertently pass that anxiety on to their children. There are lots of other strategies, too.
How to Deal with Test-Related Stress
Understand it. It’s helpful when combatting stress to understand the source of the anxiety. If the stress emanates from memories of experiences on previous tests, students should search their souls honestly to explain those experiences. Was it a lack of preparation and planning that caused a bad outcome on the test? Did the student feel extra stress because of the high expectation of others? Was the student trying too hard to compete with their peers?
Go past it. Working through stress is possible, and some level of stress could even play a positive role in test-taking. Students must avoid being overcome by stress, or to be debilitated by it, but should use it 25to push them harder. When facing stress during study, students should pause, relax, take deep breaths, and then push on with the job at hand.
Distract yourself. A variety of activities can help to push stress to the side, whether listening to classical music or taking a quick walk. Try relaxation techniques, give your mind space, meditate, take deep breaths, loosen up.
Eat dark chocolate (in moderation, of course). Believe it or not, dark chocolate has been shown to fight the stress hormone cortisol, to release endorphins, and to have an overall relaxing effect.
Pet the dog (or cat). Some colleges and universities have “puppy rooms” to help college students cope with stress. The same approach can work on a smaller scale and at lower grades, too.
Let it all out. Talking about stress with parents or others can help. Certainly, stress-related anxiety does its most harm if kept bottled up inside. Parents should encourage their children to share their feelings about stress. Never discourage open communication by focusing only on desired outcomes.
Avoiding the Sources of Stress
There are practical ways students of all ages can combat the sources of stress when facing a test. But the simplest advice to deal with stress is to channel it in a constructive way. In other words, prepare for the test using these suggestions.
• Determine what will be covered on the test. The more a student knows about what to expect from a test, the less anxiety he or she is likely to feel. Always go to review sessions, and try not to miss class the last day before the test. Try to determine the test format in advance.
• Maintain good study habits and preparation, which can strip away the stress of testing and replace it with confidence. Avoid distractions and don’t try to multitask: Think of the brain as a spotlight that can only focus on one thing at a time.
Right before the test
• Get plenty of sleep. Being well-rested for a test can help a student focus more effectively and have less stress. Losing sleep for extra study may backfire if the test-taker loses focus at a critical time.
• Eat something. Don’t skip breakfast on test day. Having food in your stomach will provide energy and better focus, but avoid heavy foods that could cause grogginess.
• Don’t be late. Show up at least 5 minutes ahead of time to avoid any last-minute panic that may occur.
• Go to the bathroom. You don’t want to lose precious time during the test, or have to be uncomfortable.
During the test
• Manage the time. Take a watch so you always know how much time remains.
• Come prepared. Bring the proverbial “number 2 pencil” (or better yet, two!), and a calculator or whatever else you will need during the test.
• Stay relaxed. Don’t panic during the course of the test. Take deep breaths to relax and maintain a positive attitude.
• Have a plan, and execute it. Go through and answer the easiest questions first, or the ones that have the highest points value. Then come back to the rest as time permits. Use your time wisely; avoid spinning your wheels. But don’t rush: Read questions carefully and pay attention to details.
• Use all the time. Don’t compete to finish first, or worry about when others finish. Don’t rush, but pace yourself. If you have extra time at the end, use it to check over your work to avoid careless mistakes.
Excessive stress is not inevitable when students face a test. Sensible approaches can help deal with stress, and good study habits and thoughtful strategies can minimize the sources of the stress. There are plenty of ways students – and their parents – can learn to “chill out.”