I had a dream the other night that I was back in high school. It’s the day of a big math test. And in my dream, I am not prepared. In fact, I didn’t even know there was a test! Worse yet, I can’t find the classroom because I’ve forgotten to go to the math class all year long. Somewhere in my subconscious, lies residual high school math performance anxiety.

What is Performance Anxiety?

Even though high school is long gone, I’m sure many of us can recall that pit-of-the-stomach feeling that we are unprepared for a big test. Test Anxiety, which is sometimes referred to in the literature as “Performance Anxiety,” usually arises when we are called upon to demonstrate what we know and be evaluated by others. For students, this usually takes the form of pencil-paper tests, oral presentations, projects, and sometimes even classroom participation. Performance anxiety in the workplace may arise arise before a big presentation at work, a report, or certification tests. Symptoms can include rapid heart rate, sweating palms, stomach pains, and intrusive thoughts (e.g. I’m going to bomb this! I didn’t study enough. My teacher will think I’m dumb, I’m going to forget my speech).

So, how do you help students deal with it?

BEFORE THE TEST

1. Let the student know that having some anxiety before a test is normal, and in some cases can be beneficial.
Low levels of anxiety can motivate you to study, to work harder, and to seek out help. It is when the anxiety reaches a critical mass that it becomes debilitating. Think for example of drinking coffee. A little bit can perk you up and enhance focus, but a lot can make you jittery, scattered, and full of intrusive thoughts.

2. Help the student assess his/her knowledge or skills. Is the student anxious because s/he hasn’t studied well? In this case, the intervention is to stop reading the blog and get to work. Start with 10-minute intervals and allow a break. Make a study schedule and stick to it. Be sure to include a small reward here and there, even if it is just verbal. Once beginning the study session, you may find the student reporting that s/he isn’t sure how to study or what to study. This can lead to avoiding studying altogether. In this case, the intervention is to seek more information about the test from notes, a classmate, or the teacher. When this is not possible, the next best thing is to study anyway. Some information is better than none at all.

3. Avoid cramming. I know, we’ve all done it, but at the last minute, it can fuel your anxiety as you become aware of how much information you don’t know yet. The research is clear: distributed practice (a little at a time) is better than massed practice (all at once).

4. Avoid excessive reassurance that the test will be “fine” or is “not a big deal” . For a child who worries, it is a big deal and they don’t feel fine. Acknowledge and normalize the worry, discourage avoidance, and encourage the student to access his/her coping skills. For example, ask the student how they have handled tests in the past and what worked well.

5. Use metaphors to explain the process of habituation . We have all heard the “face your fear!” advice. There is some truth to this, when it comes to test taking. Habituation is the process by which we “get used to” anxiety. Each time we are exposed to the anxiety provoking situation and we live through it, the next time is a little bit easier. With children and adolescents, I sometimes use a mountain climbing metaphor. Maybe it’s because I grew up at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. If you are from California, you might want to use a surfing metaphor, like “ride it out”! Use a metaphor that the student can relate too.

Here’s my mountain metaphor: At first, when you are at the base of the mountain, you look up and it is very tall and scary. You wonder if you can get up the mountain and how you are going to do it. You may say to yourself “I’m not in good enough shape to climb that!” or “what if I fall down?” But then you climb. It can be difficult, but you get through it. And the next time you climb, you’re in a little better shape, and you know a little bit more what to expect, and have a little more confidence. Each time, it gets easier. And you may have a new mountain to climb that looks a little different, but you have some experience already you can use. It’s the same with test-taking. It gets less scary each time because you know what to do.

DURING THE TEST
1. Encourage calming self-talk. I tell my students “Your brain believes what you tell it.” If the student is telling his or herself that they can’t remember anything, the intrusive thought can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Worry shuts down problem-solving in several ways. Worrying strengthens the perception that one is incompetent (e.g. “I am going to draw a blank and forget everything I studied”) and can fuel catastrophic thinking (“If I don’t pass this test, I’m going to fail all of 8th grade and never get into a good high school”). Encourage the student to use some of the following self-talk statements:

-I’m nervous, but I can handle it.
-I’m having some trouble with some questions but I’m doing well on others
-It’s okay to make a mistake because that’s how you learn
-This feeling will pass if I allow it to
-I have taken tests before, I can do it now

2. Encourage the student to use deep breathing when the worry thoughts become intrusive. Try out the “candle exercise.” Picture a cake with 10 candles on it. Imagine yourself blowing out each candle one by one using your breathing. This quick exercise can stop the worry thoughts. When I first tried this one out in a therapy session with an anxious teen, I thought it was kind of hokey. But she loved it. Each student will have his or her own relaxation technique that works. Try a few different ones and see which ones help.

AFTER THE TEST

1. Receiving the test results back can also be an anxiety provoking experience. If the student gets a grade back that he or she is dissatisfied with, it is important to reframe the test as information about what they know and need to learn. Learning is a process, not an outcome. Let the student know that a mixture of success and failure allows for learning.

2. Encourage reflection about the test-taking process. What worked? What didn’t work? What can be learned about test-taking skills for the next test? Praise the student for any coping strategies s/he used in the process.

3. Understand that reducing performance anxiety is a process. Be patient with the student as s/he tries things in a new way. Progress in anxiety reduction is rarely linear—there will inevitably be some good test days and bad test days. Just think of a habit you have tried to change—stopping smoking, going to the gym more—and recall the ebb and flow of your own motivation to change. Praise small steps in the right direction. You would want people to recognize that you went to the gym 3 times this week, not that you didn’t go 4 times this week!

The interesting thing about my math dream is that I was quite good at math in high school, though it wasn’t my favorite subject. Now I enjoy math, thanks to graduate school training in research methodology and statistics (math for a reason!). I use it every day in my work. I guess I need to let my subconscious know that I have already climbed that math anxiety mountain and am happily coasting down the other side.

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Portions of the information in this article were obtained from research by Aureen Pinto Wagner, Ph.D., of the University of Rochester and Robert D. Freidberg., Ph.D., Wright State University.

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