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The New Teacher Advisor

Help Students Survive
Standardized Tests

You might recognize the feeling -- hammering pulse, butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms, and a slight (or not so slight) sense of panic -- that comes from the thought of a test. Perhaps you've recently felt that same sensation to a lesser or greater degree when taking your state's teacher certification exam. Throughout our lives, we've taken many tests including the ITBS, a state-required exam, the SAT, GRE, PRAXIS, and others. Each test is designed to help us show our level of knowledge and/or our potential.

Our society requires us to be test-taking individuals, but our bodies often betray our brains. We panic and our brain shuts down in defense. That is a human condition. Some are better able to overcome it than others. However, testing is a fact of life for our students. As their teachers, it is up to us to guide them through the process and offer strategies for overcoming the panic and fear.

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Before we look at how to help our students overcome their test taking anxiety, let's take a look at where that fear originates. For some students, the fear is not caused by the test itself, but by the possibility of failing. Overachievers often are the most anxious about tests because they want the results to meet their own (or their parents') high expectations. The worst that could happen is failure - it's unacceptable.

For other students, the fear is that their inabilities, whether imagined or real, will be shown to everyone. Still others fear the process of making a choice. Many students who have already given up on themselves never even try to pass the test. They fill in the blanks in a pattern or randomly, simply to end the test.

So, what we want to do is help students get past their fears so they can show their true abilities on the test. One way we can help is by giving students a simple explanation of how the human brain works. I've found that my students often perform better when they recognize what factors might hold them back.


I use a simple explanation of the triune brain theory: I explain to students that the brain has three parts -- knowledge, regulations, and emotions. We want our brains to stay in the knowledge part, so we can learn more or so we can access information for a test. However, if we are hungry, thirsty, sleepy, or have to go to the bathroom, our brains "downshift" and we can think only about being hungry, thirsty, tired, and so on. If we are angry, frustrated, excited, or sad, our brains "downshift" and we can think only about how angry, sad, or frustrated we are. Our brains are not able to think clearly, because the focus is somewhere else.

Then we talk about different ways we can overcome those problems in the classroom -- especially what we can do before a test to help our brains get ready for it. Often, my students will come up with excellent suggestions that are both reasonable and helpful for all of us. We take time to talk about why we might be anxious about a test, and we try to work through those feelings so we understand them. The anxious feelings might not go away, but by understanding them, we are better able to put them behind us and move forward.


Another strategy that works well is teaching students how to relax. Perhaps a student is in the middle of a test and all of a sudden his mind goes blank. He can't think straight. Answers elude him, leading to a sense of panic. Then, the panic takes over -- the brain has "downshifted" to emotions. That only makes the situation worse. What can a student do when that happens?

Talk about that scenario with your students and help them practice different ways to relax. One strategy is below. Provide students with these directions:

  • Close your test booklet and close your eyes.
  • Think of a special place. It should be a place that makes you feel comfortable and happy, but not too excited. Imagine being in that place, maybe fishing in the lake or lying in bed, and relax.
  • Take a couple of deep breaths.
  • Imagine yourself relaxing in your special place, or recall a nice memory from that place.
  • Take a couple more deep breaths.
  • Open your eyes, open the test booklet, and try again.

Often, by relaxing, the brain is able to get back on track. Many students tell me that after they calm down, they are able to read the question and answer it without a problem.


Do you know of any other calming strategies? Teach them to your students so they know how to respond to their fear and panic during a test. So often, failing grades and poor scores have more to do with the level of fear and panic felt by a student during the test than they do with the actual knowledge and skill level of the student. It's up to us to teach our students the strategies they need to overcome those barriers to good test taking.

We need to teach test taking skills to help them cope with the types of questions they'll encounter. We also need to teach students to understand themselves, so they can recognize feelings of fear and panic. Finally, we need to teach students calming strategies they can use to remove the fear and panic during a test.

Use your own experiences when discussing test anxiety with your students. Let them see that they are not alone if they're feeling anxious about a test -- the feeling is quite common. Talk about different strategies for recognizing fear and panic. Talk about different strategies for relaxing before and during a test. Talk about how you might deal with other variables that can cause students to get distracted.

By having an open discussion with students, you are enabling them to recognize and deal with these kinds of issues as they arise, rather than being held hostage by them. Of course, remember to keep your discussion appropriate to the age you teach. And above all, remember to tell your students that no matter what the results you are proud of them for doing their best. There is no greater calming agent for students than the knowledge that their teacher will still care about them -- no matter what happens on the test.

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