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Test Anxiety | Teacher Talk

The end of the school year brings standardized testing, Advanced Placement tests, semester tests, and finals for students at all levels. Tests can be stressful for any student, and some students have a specific performance anxiety known as test anxiety. Test anxiety causes students to not achieve as well on their exams as they could, because their level of stress during the exam impedes their performance.

Michael Norton, Harvard Business School Professor and contributor to the Character Lab recently wrote an article Tests Often Stress Students. These Tips Can Calm Their Nerves for Education Weekly. Norton emphasizes the importance of rituals, or routines, in coping with test-related stress or anxiety.

For example, one study found that practicing a short daily ritual of breathing and stretching lessened the intensity of negative emotions related to making mistakes. This suggests that rituals support people in moving past negative feelings about performance failures and may help decrease test-related stress.

Norton suggests that students find rituals that work for them. He personally needs to write down his plans on a yellow legal notepad in a leather binder that his father gave him. This act of scribbling down his ideas helps him organize his thoughts and also provides a ritual for calming himself before giving a lecture or talk.

When Gina Benz and I taught next door to each other at Sioux Falls Roosevelt High School, teaching students to cope with test anxiety was one of our shared passion projects. Gina had me as a guest speaker in her class to teach breathing, stretching, and relaxation techniques. We also co-led several professional development sessions on decreasing stress in the classroom. Here are some of the ideas we suggested to our students to cope with test stress:

  • Have a blank piece of paper (if allowed) during the exam. You can write down any ideas you are worried you might forget. Alternatively, you can write down anything that is bothering you to “set it aside” until after the test.
  • Breathe. Taking easy breaths is a simple reminder to slow down and stay calm.
  • Stretch. Rolling your shoulders, wiggling your fingers, or bringing your arms overhead can relieve surface tension that contributes to the feeling of stress.
  • Practice a relaxation technique. From meditation, mindfulness, exercise, yoga, and more – anything that supports relaxation is a great way to combat daily stress.

Norton also emphasizes the importance of embracing rituals, rather than being embarrassed of them. For me, this advice was particularly helpful. I like knowing that I’m not the only one who uses rituals to cope. In fact, it’s a great tool for anyone. Good luck to students on all your exams!
The views and opinions expressed on Teacher Talk are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of South Dakota.

Jacqueline R. Wilber, Ed.D. is a faculty member and Director of the Center for Student and Professional Services at the University of South Dakota School of Education. She has a B.A. in English from the University of South Dakota, a M.Ed. in Teaching & Learning from DePaul University, an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from Doane University, and she is an Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher (e-RYT 500) through Yoga Alliance. She began her career in public schools in 2007 and has served as a middle and high school teacher and public librarian. Jackie contributes to Teacher Talk on SDPB. Visit her at: