I get asked often how to help students with test anxiety and I will write a series of posts here going more into detail on specific strategies. The short answer is to build their level of comfort and confidence and help them work on staying calm. These are my end goals for any testing student with or without test anxiety.
When I ask students why they feel anxious I receive many versions of the same two main points. They either feel unprepared or believe the stakes are so high they worry they will have long term consequences for underperformance. The solution to both of these is to build comfort in the student: both with the test material and by helping them be more realistic about the true long-term stakes. These are always my first two approaches in standardized testing with a high anxiety student.
Lowering the Stakes
Pre-COVID the stakes of the ACT/SAT were much higher, they still do play a role in merit scholarships and likely will return as a component of college admissions – but they are not everything. No single test determines a student’s entire future! They need to see and come to believe this. Parents, teachers, colleges, and now students themselves put too much pressure on these tests and the kids come to believe the stakes are much higher than they are. We need to work together to decrease this perception and help our students remember and package themselves as so much more than their test scores and GPA (please never lose sight of this).
We need to encourage students to take more than one test so they do not feel like any single performance is most important. I almost always encourage my students to register for two to three tests and often treat the first one as another “practice test” assigned as homework by me. I have found over the years if my students can approach test day like they do my homework: casual, confident, strategic, and calm they perform much better.
Comfortable with the Material
I remind my students that I have watched more “ACT tape” than any human ever should and I know the ACT/SAT material well. After I take my tests, I prep my tests, then I classify every question by category so I can help students see the patterns and understand the exact breakdown of the test (ie. exactly how many punctuation or geometry questions they can expect). My students come to trust me and my knowledge after a few sessions and I find my comfort with the material provides them comfort as well. The greatest way to comfort for any. individual though is to take practice tests, not from a book, from official previous ACT/SAT so they replicate the experiences. Just like an athlete practices a skill over and over again to build comfort and confidence – taking and reviewing practice tests is the best way to grow comfortable with the material. Comfort and lowered stakes go a long way to help anxious students.
Above any other goal in my coaching is building a student’s confidence level. We deal with weaknesses head-on, fight against stereotypes (I’m bad at math, I can’t read well), build from their strengths, and help them feel confident in their abilities. This, more than anything, is what I think improves a student’s overall performance. They have to come to believe in their own abilities and not feel like they need me anymore. I remind them my goal is always to work myself out of a job and for you to feel like you don’t need me anymore. In the beginning, they often have to ask themselves “What would Kellie say” but by the end, they can say it to themselves, even if they still hear it in my voice. Focus on building confidence first and the rest will follow is the greatest lesson my work has taught me.
Telling a student to calm down does not work, in fact, more often it will backfire. Most students need to head into their test calm, though a few need to rev themselves up (more about them in another post). The key to calm is confidence and calm and past results that prove it will be okay. Practice tests, the confidence of their coach, and belief in their own abilities are key. I can usually tell in my last session with a student their level of calm and confidence and predict if they will improve on the next test or not. Work to help keep your student calm, often that is by barely talking about the test. I ask every student at my table if I need to call home and ask parents to stop talking about and asking about the test 🙂
These elements come together on test day and a student doing well in these areas will typically see nice improvements if they can stay calm and stick to their strategies.