How Can Teachers Combat Test Phobias
By Jill Jenkins
When I was a child going to the doctor’s office for a shot was terrifying. It was before the time of disposable needles and it seems the needles were larger and much more brutal. My mother would dress my three siblings and me in our finest clothing and warn us about proper behavior. We would sit in the antiseptic smelling waiting room and pretend to read magazine while my mother chatted with the doctor’s receptionist. Meanwhile our hearts were racing and we wiggled uncomfortably on the couches listening with dismay to the sounds of children screaming with pain. If you were lucky enough to go first, Dr. Smith would try to distract you with a reward of a sucker for not causing a scene; however, if you had to wait while the other three siblings received their shots, the tension could be too much. This was the fate of my younger brother. When he entered the examining room, this four-year-old was in a state of panic. The doctor pulled down his trousers and underwear and was about to give him the injection when he bolted running down the hall to the waiting room with her pants around his ankles. He ducked under the reception desk with my mother and Dr. Smith behind him. He slipped beyond their grasped and ran back to the examining room, slamming the door and hiding behind the examining table. The doctor and my mother pursued him into the examining room. With my mother on one side of the table and the doctor on the other, they were able to snatch the boy, restrain him long enough for the shot to be administered. Like my brother, many students suffer the same anxieties about taking a test.
In spring, most schools are administering a series of state required tests on each subject. Students who suffer from test phobia begin to disappear from school with one illness after another. If the student is test phobic, these imagined illnesses may be real, a product of fight-flight response to anxiety. As teachers, we focus all year on preparing these students for the test and emphasizing their importance. As the test dates near, some classes take the tests before others. This increases the anxiety of students who suffer from test phobias. Those with test anxieties who face the test may still score 6-7 points lower than what their actual ability indicates. (Hembree, R (1988). How can teachers help these students feel confident enough to complete the test successfully?
Give students ample opportunities to practice similar tasks in your class. For example, if you are helping students prepare for a test where they need to read a non-fiction selection and respond to specific questions about it in an essay using part of the reading material for support. The teacher needs to provide many opportunities for the students to read non-fiction examples, model analysis of the reading material and have both teacher guided and independent activities where the student writes about the analysis. If the student suffers from math anxieties, the teacher may want to present one test question at a time, so he won't feel overwhelmed as he masters each type of problem. Taking small bites of learning may be less frightening. The more opportunities the students have practicing the task; the less frightened the student will be performing the task on a test.
Give students techniques for dealing with stress. One of the mistakes my mother made when dealing with my brother’s anxiety was making it such an event with special clothing and admonishments. Instead, encourage students to wear comfortable clothing to take a test. They need to feel comfortable. Remind them to eat breakfast before the test, but not a heavy, greasy breakfast that might cause them to feel uncomfortable. Don't forget about sleep. Students should get a full eight hours of sleep each night before they take a test. A reminder to parents about this might be a great asset. Teach them some breathing exercises that might relax them before if they begin to feel frustrated. Many students rush themselves through the test. Many state tests have no time limitations. If the test has no time restrictions, let the students know this and encourage them to take their time. Life isn’t a race. Remind students that they are capable and have them repeat a positive phrase like, “I can do this.” Help them visualize being successful. Repeat these positive activities while you are preparing them for the test as well of near the test days. If the test is on a computer, have them practice writing on that computer. The students need to feel familiar and comfortable in the testing environment. Finally, instead of using the last few days cramming their minds with information, remind them they have prepared all year. They are ready and you know they will all do well. If the teacher treats with the assurance that they are all capable students, they will believe they are capable students and they will not be so fearful. If the teachers puts too much pressure on them, those with test anxiety will fold up like little flowers in the rain.
Review test taking skills. Many students lack experience taking high-stake tests. By reviewing test-taking tactics, students will feel more confident taking the test. For example, practice using the process of elimination on multiple choice questions to improve their chances of selecting the correct answer. When students are taking multiple choice tests, remind them to read the questions before they read the connected reading examples, so they know what they are looking for. If they are allowed to write on the test, remind them to highlight or underline key words in the question and the reading sample. If the test is computerized, many of the programs allow students to underline and highlight. Have them practice this procedure in your classroom. If your state has practice tests, avail yourself to these so the students feel comfortable with the format of the test. The more opportunities you give students to experience test like experience, the more confident they will feel when they take the actual test. Since many students don't receive the results of the test until the next school year, some students don't feel the test is important to them. It obviously doesn't count on their grade and no one seems to understand what a permanent record is. (Especially the student who told me that she didn't need to worry because the judge told her her permanent record would be erased if she stayed out of trouble.) Some students will feel relieved if they believe they are taking the test to make the school look good, instead of themselves. Explain to them that they are part of a community. The test scores help teachers improve the presentation of the curriculum so everyone improves. In the words of Vidal Sasson, "If you don't look good, we don't look good."
Most students want to please their teacher. Remind students that they will communicate this to you by showing up and doing their best work, because they are all winners in your eyes. To do that, make sure you thank them every day for taking the test. Make sure you have given them positive feedback as they developed their skills in your class. Make sure you have covered the material that they will be tested on. (That means you need to teach the Common Core Curriculum, even if you don’t like it.) Failure to do that will dramatically increase the anxiety of students who struggle.
Distract students from on-going tests to reduce their apprehension. Like my brother who waited while his three siblings received their shots, waiting to take the test increases anxiety. If schools could give all of the tests at once, they wouldn’t because students can only concentrate on a test for about an hour a day before they burn out. Since teachers have no control over the length of the tests and not giving the test is not an option, plan an exciting project. Many schools have large populations, so the end of the year testing starts in third quarter and is spread throughout fourth quarter. That’s about 15 weeks of testing. This means teachers must be prepared to redirect students who are becoming anxious from the on-going testing. Distractions can range from projects to assignments, but keep them thinking, and not distressing about the test.
After the tests are over, it is important to celebrate. You know they are going to face another onslaught of tests next year, so end on a positive note. The school can have an assembly, a field day or ice cream sandwiches for everyone. Don’t forget to reward your faculty and staff who have been on pins and needles since the test began too. Happy Testing!