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Mark James Miller: How to Cope with Test Anxiety Is a Critical Step for Students

In the 1975 film Jaws, Murray Hamilton, portraying the mayor of Amity, the seaside community being terrorized by a great white shark, makes an interesting observation to Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) and Hooper (Richard Dreyfus): “You yell barracuda, everybody says, ‘Huh? What?’ You yell shark, we’ve got a panic on our hands ...”

After more than 20 years of teaching in higher education, I have noticed a similar phenomenon in the classroom: If I announce we are having a quiz, the students barely notice. If I announce we are having a test, the tension in the room becomes palpable, shooting up like the mercury in a thermometer held over a candle flame.

There may be absolutely no difference in the questions that are being asked or the impact the test or quiz is going to have on the students’ grades. The mere mention of the word “test” is enough to send some students into panic mode.

A quiz is defined as “testing knowledge by posing questions.” A test is defined as “a series of questions or problems designed to determine knowledge.” There is not a major difference between the two, and yet, for students, the difference is substantial.

We live in the “age of anxiety,” as British poet W.H. Auden described it in 1947, and test anxiety is just as real as any other kind. No doubt students got nervous prior to a test long before Auden coined his now-famous phrase, but the emphasis on high-stakes testing in our time and the general insecurity people feel nowadays may have increased the amount of test anxiety students are experiencing.

Test anxiety is — quite simply — the fear of taking a test. Nearly all students have some trepidation before an exam, depending on how well they have prepared for it and how significant it is (how many points it counts for, is it an especially important test, such as a midterm or a final) and how confident they are in their test-taking skill.

But for students with test anxiety, the fear takes a quantum leap: Even the thought of taking a test causes them to have feelings of apprehension and worry, and when actually given a test to take, they experience a pounding heart, perspiration, nausea, dry mouth, light-headedness, even feeling faint.

For some, test anxiety can be the cause of a full-fledged panic attack. The victim may feel intense fear or terror, have heart palpitations, have difficulty breathing, and may even think they are having a heart attack or losing their reason. They may also feel fear, anger, self-doubt, can go blank when it comes to answering questions, have difficulty concentrating and organizing their thoughts.

The causes of this are going to vary from person to person. It can be the result of poor academic performance in the past. Students with test anxiety may simply lack self-confidence, especially in that particular subject or in their overall academic abilities. Some have issues with time management, test preparation skills or just anxiety in general. Alexandra Bell, coordinator of Student Health Services at Allan Hancock College, states that 42 percent of students feel “overwhelming anxiety.”

“Almost all students suffer from test anxiety,” declared former Hancock College vice president Luis Sanchez, now president of Moorpark College. “It is a significant issue and can often inhibit test performance.”

Sanchez believes colleges should offer more workshops for both students and faculty on how to better deal with the issue, and suggests that instructors talk to students about it. This in itself, he believes, will provide some help in alleviating the problem.

Bell agrees.

“The first thing instructors can do is be aware of all the services the Student Health Center has to offer,” she said, and pass this information on to their students. The advice is supported by instructor Christine Bisson.

“Test anxiety is definitely a concern, and I am always looking for ways to help my students and our faculty manage it wisely,” she said.

How can students best cope with test anxiety? They are advised to practice some basic relaxation techniques before taking an exam: Slow, deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and getting enough sleep the night before a test. Students are also advised to eat a healthy diet, exercise and allow for “personal time.” They should arrive for the test early, sit where they feel most comfortable, be sure to bring needed items such as pens and paper (I’m often surprised at how often these basics are forgotten), and to avoid over-stressed classmates, whose influence is not going to help.

Students should also be sure to attend all classes, find out what they are expected to know on the exam and when the exam will be take place. They should also practice basic study skills such as studying in the same place and at the same time to avoid interruption. They should create a study schedule and avoid last-minute, late-night cramming, which has been proven to be far less effective than shorter study sessions.

They should underline/highlight their textbooks and review the important points. They should take notes and then review them right after class. (Old-fashioned flashcards are still an effective study and review method!)

Students are further advised to look over the entire test and carefully read and re-read the directions, focus their attention on the test, answer the easiest questions first and think about only one question at a time.

Anxiety has been described as “the great modern plague,” and it affects millions of people to a greater or lesser degree.

For students who suffer from test anxiety, especially in its more extreme forms, it can have a definite impact on performance, a factor that can echo later in life. Some stress and anxiety may be a good thing, but at the point where it becomes debilitating any positives are gone.

While the efficacy of testing is being challenged in many quarters, especially the over-testing that came along with the ill-advised No Child Left Behind program enacted in the President George W. Bush years, testing is not going away, and students are going to have to cope with it now and for the foreseeable future.

— Mark James Miller is a teacher and writer, and has been a part-time English instructor at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria since 1995. He is president of the Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College, California Federation of Teachers Local 6185, and is an executive board member of the Tri-Counties Central Labor Council. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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