Conquering Test Anxiety

One of the great mysteries we are challenged to help with as tutors is test anxiety. We hear about it again and again – a student who knows the material but suddenly becomes nervous during the pressure of the test itself – suddenly their grades and confidence plummet in an instant! So we have spent some time thinking about it and how to work with this kind of anxiety.

There are two approaches – academic and emotional. We can’t stress enough that bolstering a strong foundation in the academic can do wonders for the emotional side – after all if the test was all questions that were SO easy to a student they couldn’t possibly make them nervous – then test anxiety would go out the window.

Yet sometimes, it’s just not possible for a student to obtain complete mastery of a topic before a test, and we have to find ways for them to do their best anyway on test day. 

The truth is that this situation, let’s call it test anxiety, happens not just for students in school but throughout life.

I was struck by a story about my home football team from Washington D.C. and their quarterback this past year Kirk Cousins. He was known as a career back-up who always performed well in practice but every time he was on the field for NFL games he had terrible days. In fact, he had quickly become notorious for folding under pressure and piling on interception after interception. It even seemed that once something went wrong – he became more and more nervous and things got even worse.

His career in the balance, Kirk decided to take a strange approach for a football player – he enrolled himself in a neurological training course called “Neurocore.” The program aimed to see the differences in his brain activity during “peak performance” and during anxiety – and found there were significant differences that he could work on. After finding the differences, the program aimed at helping Kirk recognize the anxiety as it came on, and re-route his own mind so that he can stay in the “peak performance” region of brain activity and not go up higher into the frenetic areas that were causing him so much difficulty.

The results were tremendous. He moved from becoming one of the leagues most intercepted passers to being one of its highest rated quarterbacks – and one who throws relatively few interceptions. And when his back was against the wall this year during a terrible first half of football, he was able to stay poised and confident enough to lead the Washington Redskins’ all time greatest comeback in history. He credits his brain-training for much of it. Only recently, he was a awarded a 20 million dollar annual contract.

Sensing we might be able to learn from his story, I did some research on tips and strategies that his training recommends. The first, and most obvious, is learning to recognize what your “peak performance” mind looks like, and what your “anxious” mind looks like. This form of self-awareness is usually quite new to middle and high school students, and well worth the effort. To do this you can enroll in “brain-training,” but you can also do it on your own by having a conversation about moments when you were at your best and having a conversation when you weren’t. What did the differences feel like? Can you describe them? 

Second, it is important to understand that “training the brain” to stay in a relaxed state takes time and effort just as any other skill does. The brain learns and changes through practice! Imagine the time that the world’s greatest meditators have put into their practice vs. a first-time meditator. Test-anxiety is not going to go away overnight. Yet it can go away!

The focus of the effort, according to the research we have seen, is that students are trying to calm the brain from feeling that sudden stresses are more dangerous than they actually are. The key is devoting practice time to the habit of staying in the right mindset. This can be done in numerous ways – through practices focussed on this skill such as yoga and meditation, through companies such as the one Kirk Cousins used, or through a self-taught practice-rewards system that can be done even on things like homework.

We can’t answer the whole challenge here, but we encourage you to research this topic on your own and in the meantime try the following simple strategy. When doing homework, try to notice the times when stress levels go up – usually when work is more difficult than expected. At these times, promise yourself a simple reward: to stay calm and focussed to work on this particular problem that has caused stress, and then to reward yourself with a break if you do so. This practice of calming and taking a break starts as something simple and you may find yourself taking lots of breaks, but over time the brain learns how to stay calm and to require less frequent breaks. When a big test comes, you may not be able to take as visible a break, but your brain will know what to do and you can take mini-breaks like a momentary breather to bring yourself back to focus.

Test Anxiety is real – but it doesn’t have to overwhelm you. Learning how to overcome it is like anything else – it takes practice! And with practice, comes perfection.

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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