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Helping Students to Deal with Test Anxiety

Exams, particularly at the end of the semester, are a common occurrence for any university student.  As faculty, we have all taken our share of exams, I suspect some with great results and at other times, not so great.  But how many times, as a student, did a faculty member give YOU information to assist you with the actual taking of the exam. We all want our students to do well on exams, and we spend a great deal of time in class helping students to learn material, with the hope that they will not only acquire new knowledge, but also that they will do well on the test.

Unfortunately, some students struggle a great deal when it comes time for the test due to anxiety, and there are things we can do as faculty to assist them.  By providing a situation that is as stress reduced as possible, we provide students an opportunity to do their best.

One thing you can do is to give them an opportunity to practice with questions that are similar to the ones that will be on the test. This can be accomplished by designing your class with short quizzes and letting students know the questions on the quizzes are very similar in structure to those on the test. Maybe even include one or two of the first items on the exam from the quizzes. The familiarity of the items will help the students to relax a bit. You could also have a review session, during which you show students the “types” of questions that will appear on the exam.

It is a good idea to have one or two relatively easy questions to start the exam.  On game shows you probably noticed how easy the first few questions are.  Those are designed to help the contestant to relax so they can do their best.  This same effect will also help your students.  Many students relax as soon as they answer a question correctly, so what better place than the first question.

It is also important for student to NOT expect to get a perfect score on the test.  That is, they should expect to miss some questions, that way, when they encounter a question or two they can’t answer they don’t automatically panic. While covering material, help students in class to organize the material into meaningful blocks.  This will help them by providing valuable retrieval cues at the time of the exam.  This works in everyday memory.  For example, if you have several items to pick up at the grocery store after work and don’t have a list, it is easier to remember the items if you block them by meal.  What do you need as breakfast items, lunch items, and so on. The same techniques can be used for class material, helping students to put information into meaningful categories.

It is also VERY helpful to let them know that being prepared is one of the best defenses against anxiety on test day.  There is no better way to remain calm than to know the material REALLY well.

One problem students face is when they pull an all-nighter to study for a big test.  Not only does fatigue increase anxiety, during the cramming session people tend to eat all the wrong foods.  Mention to students the value of getting a good night’s sleep the evening before a big exam and to eat right.  For example, fresh fruits can help reduce stress, whereas artificial sweeteners, carbonated soft drinks, fried foods, junk foods, and foods with heavy spices can all increase anxiety.

You can also provide some test taking strategies.  Some students overlook basic ideas, such as skipping a question or two if they go blank on multiple choice items.  Oh, and tell them that if they go blank on an essay and there are multiple choice questions read through those for possible cues to get you started on the essay.  They can also just start to free write if you go blank and at times what you write will trigger memories for needed material.

It is really important to point out to students that everyone gets nervous on exam days, and if they feel anxious it is a natural response.  Those who look around the room and assume everyone else is calm will start to worry even more, thinking the nervousness they are feeling is indicative of how panicked they might be.  And tell students that if they do get nervous during the exam, take a few deep – long breaths to relax.  Maybe even close their eyes for just a minute or so and focus on relaxing.

Let your students know that if their test anxiety is really bad that there is typically a counseling center on campus that can help.  Scoring poorly on an exam because someone doesn’t know the material is anticipated; scoring poorly because he is overwhelmed with fear is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Contributed by:
Todd Zakrajsek, Executive Director
Center for Faculty Excellence
University of North Carolina Chapel Hill