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Filling in the blanks: Students can use variety of strategies to calm their test anxiety

September 29, 2018

Here comes the stomach butterflies and sweaty palms.

While it’s normal to feel a bit nervous before an exam, many children experience more extreme test anxiety. They might blank out at test time, get tearful, struggle to concentrate and have physical symptoms like elevated heart rate, irregular breathing and stomachache.

It’s a common problem, say Spokane professionals who counsel students – from elementary to college levels. But parents and school leaders often can help test-stressed students with strategies, while ruling out any medical reasons or learning disabilities.

“There is a healthy amount of performance anxiety and an unhealthy amount,” said Tera Lessard, a learning specialist at Washington State University Spokane. She works in its Student Success Center.

“If getting butterflies in your stomach before a solo performance helps you to be hyper-focused on performing at your best, that’s a healthy amount. If your anxiety causes you to freeze, draw a blank or sends you into a state of panic, that is an unhealthy amount.”

Students can overcome test stress with improved study skills and knowing best learning styles, said Molly Kreyssler, a Coeur d’Alene-based educational life coach in her business, Bloom Coaching. She said there’s usually a reason behind the test anxiety.

“From what I’ve seen, it is because students have had a negative past experiences either in the subject or just the testing environment,” Kreyssler said.

Often, there’s lack of preparation or confidence.

“Sometimes they do what they think is preparing, and then they go in and just go blank,” she said. “That might mean they don’t have really good relaxation techniques or test-taking techniques. Those are all academic skills sets we can build with students as long as we can slow them down and break it down to a step-by-step level.”

Jodi Harmon, Spokane Public Schools student services coordinator, encourages parents to work with teachers and school counselors if their child has test anxiety to gain individual strategies.

It’s even an issue among some elementary students, Harmon said. Counselors often try to make these students feel safe and comfortable, and that they’re being heard. They also might help students learn deep breathing techniques or allow them to take segments of a test alone in a low-key room.

“The counselor might work with the teacher to break up the test into parts,” Harmon said. “It might be building in breaks. Maybe we give a student the first page of a test, then they can come up and get the next page, as opposed to getting an entire package that overwhelms them.”

It’s not unusual for college students to lack long-term study skills and learning strategies to improve confidence on tests, said Ric Villalobos, a Spokane Community College counselor. He teaches free academic success workshops, including one on overcoming test anxiety. Cramming isn’t the answer.

“I ask, ‘What is it affecting you?’ Is it inability to study or not having study techniques? Lack of confidence? Previous bad experiences? Or is it not being prepared for a test? So I cover areas of being prepared, time management, procrastination, and spending the optimal time on studying.”

He also teaches students at test time to visualize doing well, remove any negative thoughts and count slowly while breathing deeply in and out. If the score ends up only 80 percent, “that’s a learning opportunity,” Villalobos said. “What did you get wrong and learn from it? It might be on the final.”

Society puts too much pressure on tests, Kreyssler added, but it help to think of them as simply measuring what you’ve already learned. Parents can ask questions that help students think about what works best for them to feel prepared, before taking pencil to paper.

“I ask a lot of questions,” she said. “Are there some subjects you get more anxious on tests than others? A lot of times the answer is yes, so what is different about the test you don’t get anxious on? Often it’s, ‘I feel more prepared or I feel more confident in that subject.’”

Exploring their best learning style is important too, she said.

Some kids study better by using visual, auditory, written, or verbal tools – or a combination – to review what they’re learning, Kreyssler said. She even drills down to what types of tests are easier – multiple choice, essay, or a combination of the two?

Here are other strategies, from Lessard and other educators:

Before the test

Study over time, which means don’t cram just before. A student learns better when exposed to concepts repeatedly over time, and this form has much less stress than a 12-hour study binge.

Create practice tests. Older students can use textbook questions often at chapter end, or a study group can create and exchange mock test questions. Try to recreate the real test environment as much as possible, so you can practice rewiring your body and mind response to anxiety.

Get plenty of rest and eat well the night before. Visualize taking the test doing well. See yourself starting with a calm, relaxed face and mind and working through problems carefully.

Learn and practice breathing and relaxation techniques. The best use of the minutes before an exam are to train your brain to be able to access the information you worked so hard to learn. Count slowly or think relaxing thoughts.

During the test

Consider your environment. Can you bring earplugs to block external distractions and noises? Can you turn and face away from the class or a clock if these things cause you stress? Try to eliminate stress-triggers and distractions.

Don’t psych yourself out. So your classmate got up and turned in the exam. It doesn’t mean you are behind; maybe that student didn’t study and just gave up.

If you draw a blank, skip the question if possible and move on. Our brains often solve problems in the background. Instead of trying to force the answer, let your brain work on it in the background, move on and go back if you can.

Don’t change your answers. You know you shouldn’t do it. So don’t. Research supports that “gut instinct” response is most often the right one. You should be 100 percent confident you need to make the change.

Pace yourself and don’t rush. You might be tempted to race through the discomfort to end it. Use your finger for a paper test or your cursor for a computer test to move under each word as you read it. Moving too fast can cause you to miss or misreadimportant instructions.

After the test

Assess how you are doing with the test strategies. If you’re seeing improvement, continue to home in on what works best. If you aren’t, consider seeing a mental health professional. Counselors can be resources, often helping you to explore the root causes of anxiety and learn more advanced methods.

At times, students are eligible for special accommodations such as extra testing time or a private space for taking exams. See if this might be available for you.

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