Helping Students Cope with Test Anxiety

Just read a wonderful article by Spencer Salend in Phi Delta Kappan, Teaching Students Not to Sweat the Test.  If you don’t have time to read his full article or have access to it, let me summarize his major points or topic areas.  Mr. Salend, Professor at State University of New York-New Paltz, has done considerable reflecting and writing on this topic, as well as on the topic of creating inclusive classrooms.  See his book, Creating Inclusive Classrooms: Effective and Reflective Practices.

Here is a list of variables that he believes can lead to test anxiety (Salend, page 20):

  • Anxiety, attention, or obsessive compulsive disorders;
  • perfectionist tendencies
  • negative self-esteem, self-statements, and criticism;
  • poor motivation, lack of confidence, and procrastination;
  • stereotype threat;
  • inadequate study and test-taking skills;
  • poor prior testing performance;
  • pressure from peers, family and teachers;
  • unfavorable testing environments;
  • invalid, flawed and timed tests; and
  • ineffective teaching.

In his article, Mr. Salend does not project a point-of-view in which a culture of “zero stress” is reasonable or achievable.  He makes the case that teachers, as one cause of stress or test anxiety, can be a constructive agent helping students cope with stress and creating an environment that minimizes the stress.  To accomplish such a goal, he believes teachers need to be problem-solvers in this conversation.

Here are some of his recommendations outlined in the topic areas highlighted in his article.

Help Students with Test Anxiety (page 21):

Design tests that are student-friendly.  He writes:

Poorly designed tests can hinder student performance and increase test anxiety.

Promote test validity (page 23):

Mr. Salend recommends: (1) determine the content of tests so they are directly linked to the curriculum you teach; (2) align test questions to instructional practices and terminology so students understand the connections; (3) conscious alignment of weighting test content to instructional practice; (4) schedule tests to cover a reasonable amount of content, as well as be well-coordinated and spaced out throughout the school program (page 23).  Mr. Salend explores each of these areas in more detail.

Enhance accessibility

He writes:

Inaccessible tests are confusing, frustrating, and anxiety producing for students.

In this section, Mr. Salend writes about the value of drilling down on format, readability and legibility of the assessments we write.  He makes the case the we should intentionally design our assessments so they are engaging for students.  In fact, we might think about how to design our assessments to be creative exercises or experiences for our students.

Foster motivation

Mr. Salend also recommends that we foster student motivation through our assessments by embedding prompts, designing questions relevant to students’ lives, allowing students to have choice in picking questions, and sometimes allowing them to collaborate.  Within the workplace, we often engage in collaborative work where the outcomes are judged as a function of the effectiveness of the collaboration.  In the education world, professional learning communities are collaborative environments that produce outcomes geared towards improving student learning.  Collaborative assessments are authentic so why wouldn’t we have students use them periodically.

Test directions and items

Salend writes (page 24):

Tricky and poorly constructed test items and directions can undermine validity, accessibility, and motivation.

He clearly advocates for teachers writing “clear, concise, complete, and grammatically correct test directions and items.”

In his book, Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: Doing it Right-Using it Well, Rick Stiggins writes about building good selected response assessments.  Some of the things he points out are (chapter 5):

  • divide points according to the relative importance of each learning target
  • match the emphasis of test items on an assessment to the emphasis you placed on the learning target in class.
  • keep wording simple and focused
  • ask full questions in the stem
  • eliminate clues to the correct answer within other questions
  • highlight critically important words that can be overlooked (NOT, MOST, LEAST, etc.)
  • have a colleague review or take your assessment
  • develop a scoring key and be sure students were given a rubric that helps them understand their assessment (if you want the assessment to be a learning tool for the student)
  • don’t trick students (tricking them is not assessing them on what they know and can be able to do)
What is she feeling?

Mr. Salend writes about the need for teachers to consider adopting practices that help students handle their stress.  While some of the techniques he suggests teachers use are probably outside the comfort zone of many teachers (meditation, relaxation techniques, guided imagery, etc.), I took from his message that our responsibility as teachers is to HELP students find strategies that work for them.  Maybe there are some we can promote in our classrooms that make it feel more inclusive, comfortable, or less stressful.

Finally, teachers can help students by actually teaching test-taking and study strategies that promote deeper learning.  The four he writes about are:

  • develop study guides that communicate purpose, content and format of a test.
  • have students work in collaborative groups to identify content and test questions that are important or likely to be covered, tutor one another, and design study strategies.
  • provide opportunities to play educational games and practice for the test (maybe the way sports teams practice for the big game).
  • distribute a list of potential questions that might be on the exam.

If the goal is to help students learn, then we don’t necessarily have to design our assessments to be guessing games.  If the learning targets are public and we teach to see if students can master the learning targets we value, then what and how we assess their mastery of the learning targets should be quite obvious to them.  The difficult part for a student might be if we ask them to apply, analyze, evaluate or create something from the knowledge they have gained.  Higher-order thinking about level-3 in Blooms taxonomy can be more difficult for students.  As teachers, we have to be sure we are teaching them in our lessons how to apply, analyze, evaluate and create.  If we do, then it should be fair game on an assessment.

If you have time to read Mr. Salend’s article, I trust you will gain some insight into assessment and how to make it less stressful for your students.  If after reading his article or my post, let me know your thoughts about this critically important topic.

2 comments on “Helping Students Cope with Test Anxiety

  1. I have had some interesting discussions with classes during test review days. In my effort to write better assessments, and to fine tune my wording, every so often I’ll find a question that many students in the class miss. As we go through the class discussions, I realize the students simply misread my question (or, to be fair, I misworded my question!). When a student can tell me how she/ he understood the question, and I can see the answer reflecting accurate and deep knowledge of what the student thought was being asked, I will regrade that question. It has been my experience that this process (from the point of class review of the tests to the slow and careful discussion of test questions answers to awarding points for knowledge demonstrated) also has decreased student anxiety about assessment in my classes, to some extent. Upon occasion I also will include a final test question asking students to showcase knowledge they feel the assessment has not allowed them to demonstrate to me. I grade these questions with some rigor (as this question is not designed to be “give-away points”). I’ve not asked students how they feel about these questions, but the depth of the answers I tend to get suggests to me that students are eager to demonstrate their mastery, and my hope is that this question serves to reduce some stress/ increase a sense of control. As I write this, it makes me think I should survey the students on that kind of question and their responses to it. Also, while I’ve never done this, I have been inspired by conversations with a colleague (John Burk) and am thinking of making an active effort to incorporate elements of Carol Dweck’s Mindset work into my classes next year (i.e., teaching the students about the power of mindset). Perhaps part of the start of the school year work could be having students identify sources of test anxiety and encouraging them to brainstorm effective coping techniques.


    • Anna:

      I read into your response that you are actively looking for ways to be sure that your measures of student achievement are reliable and valid. I think that is all we can ask of ourselves. Maybe the other thing is to shift our thinking from assessments and grades being devices used to measure students’ understanding to instruments used to get information on two fronts: (1) what do students know and what can they do?; and (2) how is my teaching? It strikes me that teachers have to look in the mirror. Use assessments as a check on teaching. Have I got this thing right? Just because I thought I taught it doesn’t mean that the methods I used reached students. We need to stop putting all the responsibility on them for not learning and accept some responsibility on our shoulders that maybe the teaching was not engaging, adequate, or targeted in such a way that all students could get it.

      So what do we learn? We are part of the test anxiety that doesn’t have to be there. Your efforts in your classes look to be moving in the direction of helping students manage the assessment culture, while assuming some responsibility on yourself. Good for you!



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