Battling Test Anxiety

Test Anxiety – it is a huge cause of students’ poor performances, and it is the number one issue parents come to me with when I begin the tutoring process with their children.  Adolescence and pre-adolescence is a difficult time, with social struggles and academic pressures, and then add in a giant final, a key standardized test like the SAT or a high school entrance test, with the understanding that this one test will govern their future academic careers, and students become overwhelmed – it’s just too much for some student’s nerves.

When I work with student’s I stress a range of things kids can forget under the pressure. It is important to remember that this is only one exam.  It might be an exam that many of us have built our careers hoping to master, but it is an isolated test.  It does not govern the intellectual capacity of a student, nor his or her ability to succeed and thrive in life.

There is a common misconception that the results of a student’s SAT, ACT, SHSAT, ISEE, etc reflect his or her potential to excel in specific schools, which is why said schools use these tests to garner admissions, but the truth of the matter is that schools need a structured barometer that other like schools use in order to organize their admissions process, and these tests act as said barometer.  They are not, in fact, reflective of kid’s potential or intellectual ability.  They are reflective of how well students are able to master THIS test.

Great teachers believe in students as individuals.  We love helping students to understand the tricks of the test, the patterns and the techniques for solving academic challenges, but we (as you should) understand that any test is just that: patterns, tricks and techniques.  These tests are not focused on individual student’s strengths and unique abilities.

Children, and teens, are incredible.  They are teeming with raw energy, and passion, and individual abilities that often get squashed by the time they are adults.  Sometimes this happens because of society, or social pressures and expectations, but often this happens because of a kid’s anxiety in being different, in not performing in the way they think they are supposed to be able to, or in focusing on non-traditional passions.  By the time these kids get to the standardized exam they have to take, they feel less than (because their brains don’t work in the particular way that the exam requires, because their friends are performing better than they are, and the list goes on…)

I like to teach my students about Howard Gardner’s work at Harvard School of Education.  His theory of multiple intelligences is a theory of intelligence that differentiates mental ability into specific (primarily sensory) “modalities”, rather than seeing intelligence as dominated by a single general ability.  Gardner chose eight abilities that he held to meet these criteria: musical–rhythmic, visual–spatial,verbal–linguistic, logical–mathematical, bodily–kinesthetic, interpersonal, intra-personal, and naturalistic. He later suggested that existential and moral intelligence may also be worthy of inclusion.  Although the distinction between intelligences has been set out in great detail, Gardner opposes the idea of labeling learners to a specific intelligence. Each individual possesses a unique blend of all the intelligences. Gardner firmly maintains that his theory of multiple intelligences should “empower learners”, not restrict them to one modality of learning. According to Gardner, an intelligence is “a bio-psychological potential to process information that can be activated in a cultural setting to solve problems or create products that are of value in a culture.” (Gardner 1999, p. 33-4) In other words, everyone’s brain has developed to be a prime responder, the very best responder it can be – but for it’s unique, particular life history.

I currently have students who are incredible visual artists, but are insecure about their mathematical abilities; kids who are great poets, a little girl who dances hip hop in a troupe with the skill of an adult (or better than most adults), and the list goes on from there.  These pre-teens and teens are extraordinary, yet they are letting their fears and insecurities over one test govern their perceptions of themselves. 

Sometimes, it’s super helpful to remind kids of their greatest passions, the areas in which they thrive, and to translate the test into that world.

I like to use metaphors with these kids when studying for these exams.  I had one student who was a composer.  He composed a four part musical score for his school band of a White Stripes song, yet he felt the math on his standardized exam eluded him.  When tackling math word problems, I told him to use that part of his brain to differentiate parts of the word problems.  Originally he was overwhelmed with the different steps that went into each problem, and he would get frustrated, convinced he would never figure it out, and throw up his hands.  Once it became a challenge likened to something he loved to do: something he “got” and was passionate about, it became less about achieving a score, and more about figuring out a curious conundrum, much like having to put together a four part score for his band.  This student ended up acing his exam, but it took months of re-programming his brain to think of the test as a fun challenge, like his composing, as opposed to an additional pressure in his life to score high on a an exam that would govern his future.

It is so important for us to boost up our student’s confidence levels (both in terms of their personal growth, and in terms of helping them to score higher on this exam).  A higher level of confidence helps alleviate anxiety, but also assists in making clear to our students that this one exam does not make or break their entire futures. 

If students can understand the importance of understanding and preparing for a big test, while still feeling as if it will not make or break them because they are bright, and strong and smart, their levels of anxiety on test day will substantially decrease.   A focused confidence in their abilities and a lack of anxiety are key in preparing students to do the very best they can on standardized exams, and (most importantly) in helping them to succeed in life.

I hope my thoughts have been helpful in your effort to do that.

-Emily Tuckman

English Teacher and Standardized Test Prep Tutor

Central Park Tutors

Have you or your kids struggled with this? If so, we'd love to hear about it and strategies you took to overcome it in the comments below!

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