Virginia Commonwealth University
August 31, 2012
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Phyllis L. M. Haynes, Ph.D.

Today is like any other day except I have a test. I arrive in class; my heart feels like it’s about to come through my shirt! Am I afraid? What’s happening to me? What if I don’t pass? My teacher said the “Standards of Learning (SOLs) are important.”

I’m sure you know a student who probably played that scenario out in their head. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, students anticipate what they fear or perceive to be waiting for them around the corner. How do you support your students and help them deal with the stresses of taking a test? How do you support them in dealing with the anxious feeling they have about a test? All students take tests and many experience some form of stress or anxiety. This article offers strategies teachers may use to help students overcome high levels of stress that interfere with their academic success.

What is test anxiety?

Test anxiety

For many students, confidence and preparation can take a back seat when they are confronted with the actual task of taking a test.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety in which taking the test is the most difficult part of the equation. “Students experiencing test anxiety encounter extreme levels of stress, nervousness, and apprehension during testing that drastically hinders their ability to perform well and negatively affects their social-emotional and behavioral development and feelings about themselves and school” (Salend, 2012, p. 23). For many students, confidence and preparation can take a back seat when they are confronted with the actual task of taking a test. Furthermore, students with disabilities are a vulnerable population and have increased rates of prevalence of test anxiety (Salend, 2011b).

Signs and symptoms

What does it look like when a student in your class is experiencing heightened and detrimental levels of anxiety? Many students report an increased heartbeat, light-headedness, and difficultly sleeping (Salend, 2011b). You may notice students who excessively perspire, have sweaty palms, and become nauseous when the topic of an upcoming test is mentioned, or you may notice these symptoms before a test is about to begin. Symptoms of anxiety may manifest themselves in student behavior, such as difficulty concentrating, talking negatively or avoidance (Salend, 2011b; Salend, 2012). As every child is unique, teachers must know their students. Be aware of changes in their responses to test-related tasks. Discuss these changes in a nurturing and non-threatening manner.

Effects for teachers

Test anxiety becomes precarious when agitation interferes with study habits and academic performance. Given the current culture of high stakes testing, the inability to demonstrate content mastery becomes a problem for both student and teacher. From an instructional standpoint, anxiety can be either a motivator or a hindrance to progress. Instructionally, students may feel anxious before they take a benchmark test, an end of course exam or a state assessment. As a motivator, anxiety can compel a student to work harder. As a hindrance, anxiety can cause extreme levels of fear and apprehension.

Students may become overwhelmed and shut down, which may leave teachers perplexed and looking for something to help students through an obviously difficult time (Merrell, 2001).

Effective strategies to reduce test anxiety

One way to reduce test anxiety is to teach your students effective test-taking strategies. The Test-Taking Strategy, researched and developed by The University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning provides a simple strategy to improve student performance on classroom tests. Students learn to successfully acquire, generalize, and maintain the use of a comprehensive test-taking strategy. The Test-Taking Strategy helps prepare students for the testing situation, thus lessening stress and anxiety (Haynes, 2011). For example, two components of the strategy teach students to:

  • Answer or abandon unknown test question: Some students perseverate on unknown questions, losing valuable time that could be spent answering questions they do know. The Test-Taking Strategy teaches students to immediately abandon unknown questions, leaving a symbol as a reminder, and return to that item when all other test questions are answered. This allows students to focus on test items they know rather than hearing that dreaded phrase “time is up” when they are working problem number two.
  • Make informed choices (guesses) on the questions they don’t know: Students learn how to employ guessing techniques when they are unable to answer the question after they return to it. One technique is to avoid the absolutes. This method can be used with both true/false and multiple-choice items. Students learn to mark true/false statements and multiple-choice items with absolute words false. Non-absolute words should be marked true. See Figure 1 for an example chart.

Figure 1

(Hughes, Schumaker, Deshler & Mercer, 1988)

Absolute Words Non-Absolute Words
All Few
Always Some
Every Seldom
No Sometimes
None Most
Never Many
Only Often

A detailed description of this strategy was featured in the September 2010 Innovations and Perspectives. To learn how you can be trained in this strategy contact the T/TAC office for training dates.

Make accessible and student-friendly tests

While test-taking strategies are important, providing students with accessible and student-friendly tests is equally necessary for reducing test anxiety and student success; this is another way to reduce students’. How accessible and student-friendly are your curriculum-based assessments? Are the assessments legible? Is the text aligned? Are the directions clear?

Accessible tests have questions that are directly related to content taught. They are given in such a manner that students have an opportunity to practice the format of upcoming tests several times before the actual test. Student-friendly tests are those that have clear instructions, complete directions, concise expectations, and use language students understand (Salend, 2011a).

Several supports can be put in place to reduce anxiety for your students. One way to make your test accessible and student-friendly is by providing students with an advanced organizer. Let them know when a test will be given and what it will cover. Another is to include content that matches the content taught in class (Salend, 2011a). Also be sure that the tests you give are organized, easy to read, and provide enough space for students to record their responses. Assessments should not be confusing or distract students from demonstrating knowledge (Salend, 2011a).

Finally, provide positive feedback and recognize your students’ effort (Salend, 2011a). For example, “You gave it your best.” “You’re on your way,” remind students that progress is not an event; it’s the journey you’re taking together.

Preparing students for the testing tool

While for some students, technology-based testing lessen anxiety because of its structure and prompts, (Salend, 2011a; Stowell, & Bennett, 2010), other students may experience anxiety because they lack test-taking skills needed for an electronic environment (how to manage time, how to effectively use scrap paper). Many curriculum-based assessments and formal assessments are now computer-based. Students are required to interact with the computer in ways they never have before. Virginia is phasing out paper-and-pencil Standards of Learning (SOL) assessment tests in favor of online assessments. By 2013, online testing will be the primary format for all SOL assessments; however, SOL tests will continue to be available in paper-and-pencil format for students with a documented need.

As a result, teachers should be familiar with the nuances of the new technology-enhanced tests and share this information with students. Additionally, teachers should provide sufficient practice time for students to learn how to use new types of items. For many students with disabilities, this new skill may take time to reach a level of proficiency. Many computer-based assessments come with tools to aid students in test completion. The new technology-enhanced tests feature new item types described as “drag and drop,” “hot spot,” “graphs,” and “fill-in-the-blank.”

Teach study skills

A final strategy to lessen students’ test anxiety is to teach study skills. Teaching study skills is paramount to test preparation. Test taking strategies assist students in navigating the instrument; however, content knowledge is what students need to demonstrate to be successful on their tests. How do they do that? As teachers, we often tell students to “study for the test.” What does that mean? How do we convey the information that will be on the test? Will the test be essay, multiple-choice, short answer, fill-in-the-blank, or all the above? Teach these study skills to help your students prepare for tests:

  • Be prepared. Remind students to plan for tests. Use a class calendar to record when tests are scheduled. Note the information they need to gather, and whom they might enlist to support them or study with them. Remind them that formal assessments are cumulative; preparation should be done throughout the year, not just before tests are given (Steele, 2010).
  • Teach and practice listening skills (Rozalski, 2008). Listening in class is a prerequisite skill students need in order to be able to recall facts they learned. For example, ask students questions that are incongruent with a passage they have just read. Consider playing simple group games such as Simon Says. Both of these methods provide students with guided practice in listening. The more successful they become at listening, the better note-takers they will be.
  • Teach students how to take notes. Don’t assume they know what important information they need to captures. Provide mannerism cues (e.g., speaking slowly), emphasis cues (e.g., repeating), organizational cues (e.g., “Today we’ll be talking about…”) during your lectures to alert students to important information. Provide notes in outline form that lists major points with some missing facts for them to fill in. Research suggests this method allows students to most likely recall and synthesize information (Rozalski, 2008).


Most students in our classes will experience anxiety and stress related to taking a test at some time. When you assist in reducing the apprehension, providing guidance with preparation, and helping students to let go of past failures, you can help calm their fears. By understanding anxiety and building supports (e.g., test-taking strategies), you can help your students respond positively to the stresses they feel when faced with taking a test. Practice strategies regularly and you will find your classroom environment is a calmer, more relaxed place to grow and learn.

Like Dorothy, in the Land of Oz your students will recognize they always had the power to get home (do well on tests), but anxiety and fear caused them not to believe. So teachers, tap your heels together three times, and say “There’s no place like home.” The journey of test anxiety is over.

Books to consider reading

Burns, E. (2008). Nobody’s perfect: A story for children about perfectionism. DC:Magination Press.

DuPont, R., Dupont, E. D., & DuPont, C. (1998). The anxiety cure: An eight-step program for getting well. NJ: Wiley.

Foxman, P. (2004). The worried child: Recognizing anxiety in children & helping them heal. CA:Hunter House.

Merrell, K. (2001). Helping students overcome depression and anxiety: A practical guide. New York:The Guilford 2nd ed.

Shapiro, L., & Spraque, R. (2009). The relaxation & stress reduction workbook for kids. CA:New Harbinger Publications.


Haynes, P. (2011). The effect of test-wiseness on self-efficacy and mathematic performance of middle school students with learning disabilities (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from VCU Digital Archives.

Hughes, C., Schumaker, J., Deshler, D., & Mercer, C. (1988). The test-taking strategy. Lawrence,KS: Edge Enterprises.

Merrell, K. (2001). Helping students overcome depression and anxiety. New York:The Guilford Press.

Rozalski, M. (2008). Practice, practice, practice: How to improve students’ study skills. Beyond
Behavior, 17(2), 17-23. Retrieved from

Salend, S. (2011a). Creating student-friendly tests. Educational leadership, 69(3), 52-58.

Salend, S. (2011b). Addressing test anxiety. Teaching exceptional children, 44(2), 58-68.

Salend, S. (2012). Teaching students not to sweat the test. Kappan, 96(6), 20-25.

Steele, M. (2010). High school students with learning disabilities: Mathematics instruction, study skills, and high stakes tests. American secondary education, 38(3), 21-27. Retrieved from

Stowell, J. R., & Bennett, D. (2010). Effects of online testing on student exam performance and test anxiety. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 42(2), 161-171.

est anxiety. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Retrieved from

Virginia Department of Education (2012). Practice item guide. Virginia Standards of Learning
Retrieved from



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