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ACT/SAT: Understand and Support Test Anxiety

For: Parents, Teachers

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Standardized Test Prep Middle/High School Strategy

Skills

Anxiety

ACT/SAT: Understand and Support Test Anxiety

If you can't fly, then run, if you can't run, then walk, if you can't walk, then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.
— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Understanding the specific reasons why a child struggles with test or performance anxiety is a critical first step to helping them overcome or reduce their anxiety.

Understanding Test Anxiety

  1. While a little anxiety can help performance, too much anxiety interferes with brain functioning and can prevent students from showing their best work. Unfortunately, this can create even more concerns about under-performance and even more anxiety for the next test.
  2. In the case where a student seems to only struggle with test anxiety and is not anxious in other settings, the test anxiety is often a result of a mismatch between performance and expectations. The key is to address the reason for the mismatch.
  3. Subject-Specific Anxiety: Some students might be more anxious on one section of a standardized test and not on another. It is key to build confidence in that subject by fully preparing and not letting the student avoid it. Plan to provide additional support while the student practices and be sensitive to their needs. Keep in mind, if the anxiety is years in the making, it might require re-learning specific skills or a good amount of time to overcome years of build-up.
  4. Automaticity: Having automatic recall of the most important subject matter can save a student a lot of time and stress. If students need to spend time trying to recall terms or deriving formulas that most students have committed to memory, they are likely to under-perform when faced with stress or time constraints. Learn more about automaticity in general, and specific to math facts. The solution: as much extra practice as it takes to commit that important information to long-term memory.
  5. Everyone forgets, especitally when they are nervous. Students should have a strategy for What To Do if You Forget key information during the test so they do not panic.
  6. Pacing: Students need to have a plan for pacing in different areas of the test so they can feel more confident that they can finish each section to the best of their ability. Taking practice tests using a timer and analyzing patterns is key to helping them improve their efficiency.
  7. Self-Awareness: Students need to recognize when they have mastered the material and test format, and when they need to study more. Many students need help in knowing how well they know the material or they will under or over-estimate their mastery.
  8. Attention: When a student cannot stay focused throughout a test, they can lose crucial time or make careless mistakes which can add to the stress. Support your student with strategies for stamina and focus.

Positive Self-talk

  1. Positive self-talk is a powerful tool that is an essential first step to changing a student's frame of mind when they are nervous or lacking confidence.
  2. Teach students to coach themselves using language that focuses on their strengths. For example, preparing for the test: "I have great memory. I can memorize the facts I need."
  3. Adults want to model positive self-talk rather than expecting a student to do this independently. Adults say something positive and have the student repeat it aloud. Students might be reluctant but it is important for them to hear it and feel themselves being positive.
  4. Negative self-talk drags you down, so help students change the negative to a positive. For example, if a student says a, "I'm lousy in geometry," an adult can say "You are great at thinking of different ways to look at a problem and that can really help in all math problems." Don't exaggerate a student's strengths, but do find the positive in what they do well.
  5. Remind students to use positive self-talk if they had a bad practice test, while getting discouraged during a practice test, and during the actual test (they can mouth silently to themselves).

Throw Away Test Anxiety

  1. Parents can try this strategy with a student one or two nights before the test date. It has been proven to work with high school students in a variety of stressful situations.
  2. Give your student a blank piece of paper and have them write down everything they like about themselves that has nothing to do with the test.
  3. If your child has trouble getting started, provide a few suggestions of what you think are his best traits.
  4. If your child is reluctant or embarrassed to try this exercise, promise not to read the list. Of course be sure to honor that promise despite the temptation.
  5. Have the student take the list with them on test day and refer back to it on the way to the test center or right before the test. This should lessen some of their angst and put the test in perspective.
  6. An alternative version of this exercise would be to have your child write down their biggest concerns the morning of the big test. Then have them crumple up the paper and literally throw it away as if they are throwing away their concerns so they are free to do their best work.