Researchers are continually finding out more about the human body and brain, so I’m always on the lookout for golden nuggets of studies that can benefit my students. The Atlantic recently published the article “Can Three Words Turn Anxiety into Success?” which I found because it was posted to Facebook by Donors Choose. Student anxiety is an especially hot topic since state testing has already begun in many states, so I was interested in finding out how this could apply to the classroom.
Anxiety and the Human Body
When the human body is anxious, “the heart beats faster, cortisol surges, and the body prepares for action.” The Educational Testing System (creator of the Praxis test) created a 13-page guide on reducing test anxiety, which includes symptoms such as “racing thoughts, difficulty concentrating” and physical effects such as “sweating, increased breathing rate, fast heartbeat, [and] tense muscles.”
If someone is trying to calm down, they’re actually fighting against a surging tide of the anxiety’s physical effects. It’s actually easier for people to shift negative anxiousness to positive excitement, because the mental and physical effects of excitement are actually very similar.
If the attempt to reframe anxiety into excitement is successful, the article cites multiple studies that show the quality of the performance improves, whether it’s singing, giving a speech, or even taking a math test. For example, people who were told that “anxiety could improve performance” actually did better on the math section of the GRE.
Researcher Alison Wood Brooks says that although it may seem strange to change “I’m anxious about ____” to “I’m excited about ____,” that the shift should become easier with time. In addition, she “recommends making a list of all the ways an upcoming, anxiety-inducing task could go well, and how it might benefit you.”
Awareness of Testing Anxiety in the Classroom
In past couple of years, our school has used STAR tests to monitor student progress. I like the assessment because it does give me useful information and the students can see growth over time. From month to month, I ask students to strive towards a personal best, and suggest a few strategies that may help them. Yet, I couldn’t help but notice that whenever the “benchmark” STAR tests come around, students didn’t seem to do as well, even if they were consistently making gains in the previous months.
I started to suspect that what I was saying to my students prior to the benchmark tests, and my own body language, inadvertently amped up the anxiety level in my students.
By emphasizing that “this one is important, the administration is going to be looking at these results,” I may have played a role in sabotaging their success.
I remember one particular occasion where I gave the “this test is important” speech to my first group of students, and was disappointed when only a few had a personal best that day (I’m able to see their results as soon as they complete the test). For some reason, I forgot to give the speech to the second group, but noticed that many more had a personal best. So, for the remaining classes, I deliberately didn’t say anything about how this test was “more important,” and overall, the number of personal bests was higher than in my first class.
While this observation is nowhere near scientifically valid, it’s been my hunch for a while that what I was saying to students could have a significant effect on their performance.
With 2016 state testing already in progress, it’s no secret that student anxiety is a concern. Having given multiple standardized tests for the past six years, I’ve sat through test training sessions where teachers are told that if a kids throws up, make sure to take the right steps so the test isn’t invalidated.
Both students and teachers have a lot riding on these high-stakes tests, and there’s always a sense of helplessness when I tell the kids “Remember, just do your best.”
Talking to Students About “The Test”
Standardized testing isn’t going away, and like it or not, we want our students to be successful. The real question is, what do we say to students about the test?
From my personal experience, I’ve learned that stressing the importance of a particular test doesn’t seem to help students, and it could even make their performance worse. Talking about the “big state test coming up” for weeks (even months) might be building up stress and anxiety in students that no amount of “relax and just do your best” reassurance can help with. (The other extreme would be to tell students that the state tests are no big deal, but I doubt they would believe me anyway.)
Like most teachers, I’ve read various articles about preparing students for testing, and many of them often include tips like breathing exercises and envisioning a happy place. As part of her research, Brooks did a survey of participants to find out what they believed was the best advice for handling anxiety, and 85% believed it was to “calm down.”
Yet, the results of her study showed that embracing an “opportunity mindset” (rather than a “threat mindset”) improved the outcome better than trying to be calm–in other words, reframing anxiety doesn’t just keep you from doing poorly, but it can also help you to be more successful!
Ideas for Helping Students Reframe Test Anxiety
I’ll be the first to admit that I have often over-emphasized The Tests to my students. Recently, I’ve been trying to focus on the positive, such as telling students that I taught them all the tools they needed to to succeed on their writing test, and that I was proud of them, and how much they’ve grown as writers.
For this year’s reading test, I want to take that a step further and actually empower students to overcome test anxiety by teaching them to reframe anxiety into excitement. Here are some things I want to try:
- Acknowledge testing stress as a normal and common phenomenon, and how to recognize the symptoms. Help students see that these symptoms are similar to excitement, and why it’s beneficial to consciously make the switch.
- Have students verbally say, “I am excited to show what I know!” before the test begins.
- Teach students to shift from negative thoughts to positive ones, even if it seems weird at first. The following are some examples–and maybe this could be turned into an activity where students practice coming up with the “excited” versions:
- Instead of thinking, “I’m so nervous about this test, I can’t sleep,” try “I’m so excited about this test, I can’t sleep!”
- Instead of thinking, “I never do well on standardized tests,” try “I’m excited because I’m going to do well on this test!”
- Instead of thinking, “I’m going to fail this test,” try “I’m excited to try out the strategies my teacher taught me!”
- Instead of thinking, “Everyone else is going to do better than I am,” try “I’m excited to show how much I’ve learned this year!”
- Instead of thinking, “If I don’t do well on this test, my teacher and parents are going to be upset,” try “I’m excited to make my teacher and parents proud of me!”
- Remind students that they may need to reframe anxious thoughts to excited ones throughout the test.