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Tackling Exam Anxiety—Strategies and Tips for Home and School
time is synonymous with more daylight and warmer weather, but for many teachers
and students, it can also be a stressful time preparing for final exams.
Exam anxiety often occurs in three distinct stages: (1) the weeks and days leading up to the exam, (2) the act of writing the exam itself and (3) the period following the exam when the student awaits his/her results. While it’s important to consult a health care professional if you think your child suffers from any form of anxiety, this article’s focus is to provide tips and strategies that can be used at home or in the classroom to reduce student anxiety at any stage. As a teacher or parent, what can you do to help develop coping strategies for your elementary or high school student?
Weeks Before Exam
In most elementary and high schools, the end-of-year ministry exams tend to take place over a set period of time in April, May and June. Parents often receive letters from the school or teacher indicating the exam schedule for various school subjects. It’s important to know in advance if your student struggles with any of his/her core subjects to be tested, and particularly, which skill sets need to be strengthened. Having this information is valuable when seeking out academic support services from a tutor or tutoring center, especially if your student’s exam anxiety stems from struggling with school material from the get-go. Early preparation and intervention is key. Preventative tutoring is a strategy involving extra support for the student from the start of the school year in order to reinforce targeted skill sets, create positive study habits and avoid the development of learned helplessness.
For students not necessarily struggling with academics per se but rather general anxiety surrounding exam-taking, writing a mock exam at home or at school can ease the student into no-pressure practice several times before the actual exam in the school setting. Many teachers use ministry exams from previous years to help their students practice and prepare during class time, several weeks before the actual exam is scheduled.
“Students are made aware of how each test item will be evaluated through the review of the scoring rubric,” says Don Barrett, a retired elementary school teacher with well over 30 years of experience, who taught for the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board. “They are aware of what is needed in order to score well, which helps reduce levels of anxiety.”
Teachers can help at-risk students at school by organizing a lunch hour or after school club for exam practice or stress-reduction strategies. Parents can collaborate with teachers in this effort, or ask if old exams can be borrowed for practice on weekends. Exam simulation need not be complicated, but the student should have access to a practice environment that is conducive to learning where positive experiences can be created and built upon.
Melanie Pregent, a sixth grade teacher for the New Frontiers School Board, says that in the weeks and days leading up to the exam, students can experience anxiety in very physical ways. “Students ask a lot of questions, such as worst case scenarios. They’re sometimes absent with stomachaches,” says Pregent. “I’ve had parents e-mail me about some students experiencing insomnia.”
Karen Stoddart, a second grade teacher for the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board, points out that at times, the anxiety her young students experience may be a reflection of the parents’ anxiety about preparing their children for the exam. “Although they [parents] have the best interest of their child in mind, this tends to be more detrimental than beneficial to the stress level of the child,” says Stoddart.
As a parent, reminding your child that you are there to support him/her can make a big difference. Understanding the root cause of your child’s anxiety surrounding the exam can help to determine the best course of action. Pregent says that some students’ anxiety surrounding their exams is due to the fact that their parents have placed a negative outcome pressure tactic weighted on the results of the exam. “I’ve had students tell me that if they fail, they won’t be allowed to play football anymore, or that another activity or something they love would be taken away,” she says.
Rather than place a negative outcome pressure tactic, parents can offer up a positive reward for their child at the end of the exam process, and not have this reward be weighted on the actual result. For example, determine a set of guidelines that your child must follow in the weeks and days leading up to the exam, and if your child complies, the reward is then achieved. The guidelines can be simple: going to bed without complaint at a reasonable hour, doing all homework on time including practice questions or work sent home by the teacher, prioritizing homework and study time and student-initiated practice, etc. Showing your child that he/she can be implicated in the learning and preparation phases allows the student to feel more in control of the situation at home and in the classroom.
Adequate sleep in the weeks and days leading up to an exam, along with nutritious meals and snacks, are contributing factors to students feeling their best during an exam period and maintaining focus for longer periods of time. Stoddart explains that she often e-mails parents tips and tricks to use at home to alleviate anxiety surrounding the exam, and she reminds parents that sleep habits and nutrition play a solid role in student learning and performance. “Home atmosphere and family stability are important and should be maintained as much as possible,” says Stoddart. She explains that exams usually take place around the same time of year that soccer and other sports begin, and this can result in changed home schedules, meal times, and other routines. “This can have an effect on some students who are more sensitive to change than others.”
Days Before Exam
In the classroom, teachers can reassure students that they have been adequately prepared, and that the exam will be very much like the class practice they experienced during the preparation phase. “Because the preparation for and the actual writing of the exam itself can take several days, there are generally many opportunities to help students practice skills and develop strategies which will enable them to write the exam,” says Barrett. “These activities ensure that there will be no surprises.”
Stoddart says she does exam simulations in her classroom to help students understand the exam routine. “I find this helps to alleviate the mystery around exam-taking,” she explains.
Parents and teachers can help anxious students by encouraging them to use some simple Brain Gym® movements before school or during class, such as the P.A.C.E. series (see the previous edition of this magazine for details). The 26 basic Brain Gym® movements all have their own benefits to the sensorimotor mechanics of academic and cognitive skills; some moves are specifically dedicated to preparing students for test-taking, writing, reading comprehension and even oral expression! Brain Gym® movements require no equipment and very little space to do.
The Lazy 8s move helps students improve their soft focus, allowing for better skimming and scanning of a text, an important skill in reading comprehension activities. This move also impacts long-term associative memory.
The Rocker move improves attention and comprehension because it relieves mental fatigue. It also eases test-taking as it re-establishes hip-shoulder coordination if this has been blocked by sitting for long periods of time or by stress.
Balance Buttons is a move that improves comprehension for ‘reading between the lines’ of a text, an important skill for core language exams, as students are often called to use their inferencing abilities to produce reading responses and find common themes in different pieces of literature presented. This move also helps students to gain a greater perception of the author’s point of view, along with better critical judgement and decision-making skills. Finally, organizational skills for spelling and Math are positively impacted.
The above-mentioned movements are described in detail in Brain Gym® Teacher’s Edition by Paul and Gail Dennison, or found in a multitude of online videos.
Marie C. Geoffrey, a retired teacher from Gatineau with 35 years of experience, notes that it’s often the strongest students in the class who suffer from anxiety during the actual exam. “These are the students who know their material, but they want to perform not only at their best, but want to be the best—performance anxiety,” she says. “During an exam, they can lose mental access to their knowledge because they focus too much on a detail, a calculation for example, and lose sight of the bigger picture, such as what they were solving for in a Math problem or the context in a reading text. When they realize that, they feel lost and panic,” she adds.
In her classroom during an exam, Pregent has experienced students break down crying because they feel that they cannot do a certain part of the exam, and this makes them believe that they will fail the entire exam. “Students know ahead of time how much the exam is worth for their term grade,” she says. Pregent, Stoddart and Barrett all agree that exam anxiety does not appear to be gender specific, and that boys and girls generally experience exam anxiety in the same ways.
“Levels of anxiety, in my opinion, are directly proportional to the degree that a student ‘cares’ about the exam. The more a student wants to do well, the greater the anxiety,” says Barrett. “There is a small percentage of students who simply ‘go through the motions’ of exam writing.” In moments of panic, a student can be guided to do some slow breathing at his/her desk, be permitted a short movement break to perform a quick Brain Gym® move, as well as rehydrate with plenty of water.
Though one would think that exam anxiety disappears after the exam has been completed, some students still have lingering anxiety. As the ministry exam correction process can be quite lengthy, it can be several days or even weeks before students are informed, if appropriate, of their exam results. Pregent says that students once more ask a lot of questions, such as, “Did you correct this part? Did I do that right? When are we getting our results?”
As a parent or teacher, you might be questioning the validity and efficiency of final exams if so much stress is experienced by teachers who must prepare their students, by students who must practice and be ready, and by parents who are perhaps stuck in the middle—wanting their children to succeed but not wanting to add undue pressure. It has been argued that end of year exams serve little purpose if year-round class assignments and evaluations can be used to determine whether a student has met the objectives set out by the education program. Yet another argument is that all the time and effort put into preparing students for a specific type of exam is wasted, as regardless of the results, students will move up to the next grade level anyway.
“In my opinion, an exam should provide the teacher with an opportunity to access what the students know in order to guide further learning,” says Barrett. In other words, the results of an exam should allow a teacher to understand what students have understood and mastered in order to modify some aspect of their teaching to help those very same students fill any gaps in their learning. “To draw a simple analogy, any testing done by a doctor should enable that individual to determine what is wrong/right with his patient and prescribe the proper treatment,” argues Barrett. “Year-end testing serves little purpose in helping the student ‘get better’. It is much like the doctor explaining to me that I have a health issue, but not recommending anything to help me get better.”
Though year-end testing for the upper elementary school grades has been in effect for several years, Stoddart points out that board testing has only recently been introduced to students in the second grade, and feels that since this change occurred, levels of exam anxiety have increased for teachers as well, due to all the exam-specific preparation that must take place prior. “I think it is important that children, especially 7-8 year olds, be given the opportunity to shine as individuals—not compared to idealistic groups. Exam taking should be introduced only when children are developmentally ready to handle the pressure that is usually associated with it,” she says.
Addressing exam anxiety in your classroom or home by offering a student tools that he/she can use on their own can mean better rested students, less anxious parents and a more harmonious end of year season for all key players.
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