When it comes to test-taking, it is completely normal to experience a few butterflies in your stomach when you’re in pre-test mode. In fact, Anna Silverman, an expert tutor with Noodle Pros whose specialty is working with anxious test takers to help build their confidence, feels that little bit of extra adrenaline can often be a motivating factor. However, if the anxiety reaches a more severe level and morphs into a debilitating fear, it should be examined more deeply.
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Anna recently joined us for a Facebook Live and gave us some pointers about how to manage stress in what has become a very competitive, high-stakes testing environment. (By the way, managing stress is something that is not just limited to high school and college students before test time. Adults can suffer from this type of anxiety as well, and Anna’s tips can help them too.)
What do you recommend to help calm anxiety?
Students are overwhelmed by the magnitude and breadth of these tests and the unfamiliar approach that taking them requires. They put a lot of undue pressure upon themselves, and these tests are only one part of the equation that cause this stress. Other things going on for them at this phase of their lives—social issues, school in general, and the college admissions process—all combine to create a perfect storm of angst.
The Three “Ps” To Conquer Test Anxiety:
Planning: Test preparation should be integrated into the academic workload in the least stress-inducing way possible. Some students like the high pressure condensed preparation a few weeks before the test, but most anxious testers will suffer if forced to take anything that resembles a crash course. The diverse mix of old material, current material, and material they have not yet tackled can be very intimidating. These students will thrive when they can iron out their general academic schedule and leave themselves ample time to absorb the material and take the opportunity to try and feel comfortable with the testing strategies.
Preparation: Learning the content of the test is crucial. Taking advantage of the summer months, when the pressures of the regular school year academics are not as great, is a good place to start. Beginning in the summer between Sophomore and Junior year is recommended.
Practice: In the process of making sure there is a good balance of content and strategy, time constraints can also pose problems for those who suffer from test anxiety. To assist in doing this, Anna recommends learning strategies first, working within the parameters of time. Completing the homework consistently is vital! Practicing using a timer on drills and tests allows the tester to compartmentalize, breaking it up into segments, the test into manageable parts. It also teaches the students how to gain their footing again even if a particular task doesn’t go as planned. Recounting the steps they learned and talking themselves through the process can really aid in reducing the anxiety inherent in high-stakes environments and improve performance.
Because of timing differences, do kids with test anxiety typically do better on the ACT vs. the SAT?
There are trade-offs! While the reading on the SAT gives us a luxurious 13 minutes per passage compared to the 9 minutes on the ACT, some students don’t appreciate a 65-minute reading section! Some students become even more anxious at the thought of not having a calculator for one of the math sections on the SAT. Others are terrified by the science section on the ACT. It remains very subjective, and the best way to assess which test is better for an individual student is to try both formats and see which he or she is more comfortable with. There won’t be a huge difference in the scores between the ACT and SAT, but it will let the student see what each entails. Both are standardized tests, each is awful in its own way, but they are highly predictable and we know exactly how to train our students for them as long as they are on board with following the techniques and putting in the practice.
What about students who need accommodations?
There are several levels of accommodations, and both tests require documentation and planning in advance. Accommodations usually mean a student will get time and a half or double time to take the test. That can be a blessing or a curse. On the positive side, there is more time to process the problems, however, for some students, that extra time can be an ordeal. Regardless, Anna recommends practicing and drilling whether or not more time is given.
My student knows the material but can’t test well because they get nervous. How can I help them?
Besides knowing the material the student must have ample practice with the test format and timing. If the student does the test in the same manner over and over, it will yield the same results. Working with an expert to learn section- and question-specific strategies can make a world of difference. All students, but my anxiety-prone students especially, benefit from receiving extremely specific instructions for each question type, and drilling the steps I give them, so that it becomes a rote response even under stressful conditions.
My student gets nervous on multiple choice test sections. How can I help them?
Multiple choice questions are actually a boon! Training students to use the choices to their advantage is part of all good tutoring strategies. It’s important to use a timer to keep pace on each task within a test section, but one must also make sure that the timer does not serve as an anxiety trigger of its own. If used to its full advantage, and it happens that a reading passage doesn’t go as well as we’d have liked,for example, that does not have to spill over into the rest of the test, and the student can still gain ample points elsewhere. It’s also important to prioritize the questions and passages that are likely to pay off for a student to guarantee the most points, and to help build confidence during the test. The student must keep in mind that the test can be taken more than once—it’s not an all or nothing proposition.
What do you recommend a pre-test evening should look like?
These are not cramming tests! I would stress how much work the student has done in preparation for these tests, and how he or she has seen so many iterations of it on practice tests that it is unlikely they will see much that will surprise them, and if they do, there’s still a way to work out an answer. I usually recommend a thorough note review when they come home from school the day before the test. Then plan a fun activity that will take the student’s mind off the exam and let him or her enjoy the evening. Another note review over breakfast. Some students benefit from doing a few warm-up questions before they head out. And as a final blood-pumping exercise, a quick jog around the parking lot or school yard couldn’t hurt.
How early should my student begin to prep for the test?
The summer between Freshman and Sophomore years. Anything earlier is too early and you run the risk of your student burning out by the time they really need to start preparing. If you’re really “itching” to get going on the prep, exposing them to reading and vocabulary can be very helpful in the long run, and never come too soon.
It’s important to remember that stress is a physiological response. With practice we can learn to exercise a degree of control over our anxiety and manage our performance. Learning techniques to mitigate the stress response as soon as the student feels anxious is vital to overcoming that anxiety. Mindfulness techniques, breath control, even something as rudimentary as chewing gum or smiling during the test can shift the body out of the flight-or-flight response. A good rule of thumb is to “keep your eye on the pencil and your breathing—both should always be moving.” Keeping proper perspective on the role and value of the test is also helpful. Most importantly, recalling and implementing the steps for each sort of question and allocating time to tasks that are likely to get the student points, rather than mindlessly rushing through the test just to get it done. These tests are important, but they are not the end-all of everything as many students believe. While it’s important to do well, there should not be such severe pressure because test scores are only a part of an applicant’s credentials. Also, most students will have plenty of opportunities to improve their scores if they need to retake a test, even when targeting extremely competitive programs.
One more thing (or a few more things)…
Repeated exposure with support
Learn the content
Practice the techniques under timed conditions
Practice mindfully and engage strategies to mitigate the stress response
Watch the original video with Anna here.
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