As educators, it’s a scenario we see frequently: all too often, students will come into my office after taking a test, upset because they got nervous and their mind went blank. That’s understandable — test-taking is a scary business that can have a paralyzing effect on even the most confident of students.
So, what can we do?
Getting rid of quizzes and tests is one possible answer to this problem. Instead of testing, we can let kids show their learning through performance assessment or other alternatives. But tests will most likely be part of our students future, so it’s important to teach them strategies to overcome test anxiety and therefore, be more successful. One of our math teachers, Ailyn, had been working hard to consistently check for understanding and to differentiate her classes in order to reach all of her students. Recently, she noticed that while students knew the material, some of them were unable to show their learning on a formal assessment. Rather than eliminate tests or quizzes, however, Ailyn wanted to try something different.
Ailyn decided to experiment with relaxation techniques to see if she could help her students lower their anxiety. These are the steps she took:
- When students came into the room, she used a calm tone and gave them a few minutes to get ready before an exam. “Put all of your books and materials away,” she said. “Make sure you have a sharpened pencil, eraser, and calculator ready.” She gave anyone who was missing materials time to go get them, and wanted students to feel calm and relaxed before they began.
- Ailyn reminded students that there would be no surprises on this test – they had all the knowledge they needed to pass. She was sure all of them were capable of solving the problems.
- She reassured her students by letting them know that the test was also an assessment of her own teaching. It was a way for her to find out what they understood and what she needed to reteach.
- Students were asked to stand up and take deep, slow breaths as they raised their arms in the air. Then they exhaled long and slowly as they lowered their arms.
- As they breathed out, Ailyn said in a gentle voice, “Breath out all your nervousness, all your anxiety, let it go…”
- Then, to ease the stress from their backs, Ailyn had them do side stretches and twists. She asked them to lean over and hang like a rag doll.
- She finished with a few more deep, slow breaths to finish up.
- Before they sat down, Ailyn told her students that if they still felt stressed, to please not share their feelings with the class, since anxiety can spread from one person to another. Instead, she told them to take a few more quiet, deep breaths and to repeat the mantra, “I can do this. I have all the knowledge I need to be successful.”
The entire exercise only took about five minutes overall, but Ailyn’s anti-stress activity was very successful: all of her students passed the test, when normally about five or six kids do very poorly. However, Ailyn emphasized that teacher attitude is an critical part of the equation when it comes to test-taking. “The teacher should have a very ‘zen’ mindset,” she explained. “Your voice has to be soft and low. And that attitude needs to be there for the entire test. Answer questions gently, touch students on the shoulder rather than calling out their name, and remain calm.”
When I asked Ailyn’s students about their experience, they all told me it was helpful. Even students who generally do well on tests, said it calmed them. Some of their comments were:
- “It relaxes your muscles so that your mind is ready, you remember what you learned, and you can pass.”
- “It calms me down and makes me feel safer.”
- “If you’re anxious you make stupid mistakes. This helped me make less of those kinds of mistakes.”
- “It made me realize that I’d studied enough and I was ready. It gave me self-confidence.”
- Nervousness makes you forget stuff.”
- “I’m passing now!”
When we cultivate a peaceful atmosphere in the classroom, test anxiety decreases, and students can think more clearly. Taking a few minutes to help students prepare for the test and calm their nerves can make all the difference — and in “fake it ’til you make it” fashion, the more times students take tests without feeling anxious, the more likely that is to become their norm.
If you have any favourite techniques for lowering stress, please share them so that we can add them to our toolbox.