Helping Students Overcome Test Anxiety

Though the fall semester is just beginning, my mind is already focused on midterms and final exams. More specifically, I am reflecting on past students’ fears and frustrations about tests. Students of all ages experience test anxiety, and many factors can influence how they develop anxiety about tests and problem solving in general. A recent study of first- and second-graders found that the level parents’ anxiety about math problems directly influences the levels measured in their children. A 2010 study found that math-anxious elementary schoolteachers were a significant factor in children’s level of math anxiety, particularly for young girls.

What may begin as occasional nervousness at a young age can snowball into a blinding fear of exams. As a teaching assistant, I’ve heard from undergraduate and graduate students who felt prepared for an exam, but simply “choked” or “blanked” on certain questions or the entire test. Unfortunately, several studies have found test anxiety to be a negative predictor of academic performance.

Dr. Sian Beilock,  a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, wrote the 2010 book Choke, describing various strategies on how to succeed in high pressure situations. Beilock makes the distinction between so-called “working memory,” or conscious intellectual thought and analysis, and “thinking outside the box,” which can be understood as a more instinctual reaction to a problem. Her books reveals that in high pressure situations such as exams, those who rely heavily on working memory get into trouble, as too much conscious thought can inhibit and disrupt performance rather than enhance it.

How can we look ahead to try and prevent some of these anxieties from holding back students’ academic performance? Beilock coauthored a 2014 column in American Educator with Dr. Daniel Willingham on math anxiety. Some of the strategies they suggest  for teachers to help their students include:

  • Ensure fundamental skills. Confidence in basic skills and concepts will lead to confidence of more difficult problems later on.
  • Focus on how to teach math concepts. Courses that focus on how to learn math concepts have been found to be more effective at reducing anxiety than courses that only seek to reinforce math concepts.
  • Changing the assignment (e.g., reduce time pressure)
  • A writing exercise on student emotions regarding an upcoming exam. Students that write about their emotions may find a sense of relief from their test anxiety.
  • Think carefully about what to say when students struggle. Acknowledge the challenging nature of the work and a student’s struggles, but express confidence that they are capable of overcoming their difficulties.

While the column is geared toward K-12 math teachers, some of these strategies may prove useful for engineering professors as well. For most undergraduate students, applied engineering problems are as novel as multiplication tables are for elementary school students. Taking the time to implement some of these strategies into courses early on may help prevent some students’ test anxieties from forming.

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