Test Anxiety

I’m sure that some of you gave an old-fashioned Midterm Exam–I saw the results in my students appearance, demeanor, and preparation this week and last–tired, bedraggled, anxious, and the rest. I would guess that more than a few of you talk about test anxiety (and how to cope with it, if not beat it).

If you haven’t you might be interested in some of the research surrounding it (and if you’ve never read Claude Steele’s piece on college students (which is related somewhat indirectly to test anxiety, but turned me on to the whole topic as something that I had to get incorporated into my curriculum if I was going to prepare HW students for success in higher ed (and elsewhere) to the best of my ability), stop wasting your day with my jibber jabber and read something GREAT!).

And if you plan to debrief your students about their experiences (and anxiety) while taking the exam (surely there is one student in your room who will think, “I’m just a bad test taker” at some point while you discuss the exam or its results), you might want to show them THIS piece, titled, “Four Reasons Why You Choke Under Pressure (And How To Avoid Them)”:

So, why do we choke under pressure? A lot of the explanation can be boiled down to the fact that, under pressure, the prefrontal cortex (the very front part of our brain that sits over our eyes) stops working the way it should.

This can result in a lack of brain power available for demanding thinking and reasoning tasks (e.g., taking a test, responding to on-the-spot questions to a client) because worries about messing up co-opt these brain resources. However, under pressure, we also often try and control what we are doing in an attempt to ensure success. Too much attention to the details of activities that are best left outside conscious awareness (e.g., in golf, too much attention devoted to how your elbow is bent as you take a 3-foot putt you have holed thousands of times in the past) can disrupt a fluent performance and make you miss the hole.

The good news is that knowing the science behind why we choke gives us the power to wield the right tools to ensure success under stress. In her book Choke, author Sian Beilock provides a toolbox of tips to prevent the dreaded choke, but here are a few to get you started…

Go to the article to see what they are.

One thought on “Test Anxiety

  1. I had the pleasure of meeting Claude Steele at a presentation at Erikson Institute a few years ago. I also read his work on racial stereotype threat while in the CCLT program – important stuff.

    I think understanding stress is an important part of being a teacher at any level. We, in many ways, create the learning environment for our students and we need to understand how our actions and words can influence their ability to learn.

    We need to help students understand that we have high expectations in the class, but provide support to help them achieve their learning goals. If we focus on the work, and they see how we are evaluating their work, they are less likely to make assumptions that we are grading them differently based on who they are and our impression of them. Students need to know the criteria for our assessment of their learning – upfront.

    The three major buffers of stress are:

    1) predictability
    2) controllability
    3) social support

    Do students know what to expect?
    Do they have some choice or some control of their own learning?
    Do they feel supported by us, by their colleagues in the classroom, by the college?

    These are things we can actually build in to the learning environment and make transparent to the students.

    I usually say to the students – I’m not interested in surprising you or catching you off guard. I’m not trying to trick you. I will not change a due-date or assignment mid stream. You will always know what I expect and how I will grade your work. I do not participate in “creative” grading.

    I like all of my students, but I’m not grading you on whether I like you or not. I’m assessing your learning based on the evidence you provide on paper and based on this rubric, these guidelines, these points, etc.

    Since I have made this kind of stuff more explicit, I rarely have anyone contest a grade. Students feel encouraged to keep moving forward and they feel the grading is fair, generally.

    I really believe strongly in this –

    1) stress is a physiological response to a threat

    2) stress is highly individualized – what is stressful to me may be just challenging to you.

    3) stress can impede learning; chronic, severe stress can actually stunt physical growth in young children.

    The research pans out on this stuff and I take it as my responsibility to not add to stress levels and to find ways in my planning, in my assignments, in my assessments, and in my communications with students to try and buffer stress.

    I’m too lazy to put in the references to the research I mentioned but if you are interested I’d be happy to send that out to you at some point…

    have a great weekend!

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