Expert Perspective

How to Help Students Cope with Test Anxiety

Test anxiety is a real problem, affecting 25% to 40% of U.S. students. Anxiety, along with academic stress, can appear as physical symptoms (such as headaches, nausea and sleeplessness) and psycho-emotional symptoms (like difficulty concentrating or increased irritability).

While test anxiety is common, it’s important to make sure it’s not debilitating. Parents, guardians and educators can play an active role in supporting students experiencing these feelings. They can provide resources that teach relaxation techniques and testing strategies, or simply listen as students share their concerns. Here are eight ways parents and educators can help ease test anxiety in students.

1. Emphasize preparation

Helping students who suffer from test anxiety starts with proper preparation. This means helping them study effectively and creating a clear plan for their testing day. Preparation can look different for individuals, but there are a few tips everyone can benefit from:

  • Create an organized study plan: Develop a weekly or monthly testing schedule and provide students with study guides.

  • Practice relaxation techniques: Help students learn how to calm themselves by practicing meditation, visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing, mindfulness, or yoga.

  • Get enough rest: Encourage students to go to bed early and take breaks while studying.

  • Eat healthy meals: A balanced diet helps reduce stress levels and improve alertness and readiness for testing.

  • Seek more resources: These include everything from testing strategies to test-taking skills.

2. Try to understand their fears

Test anxiety can be rooted in a number of underlying fears, such as:

  • The fear of failure or not being good enough.

  • Past trauma related to school or test-taking.

  • Depression or other mental health issues.

  • Performance anxiety and social comparison.

Try to understand why your student is feeling anxious or scared about testing. Ask questions about past testing experience, what triggers their stress, and how they feel when testing. For example:

  • What do you think makes testing so difficult for you?

  • Tell me about a time when you didn’t do well on a test. How did you feel? What happened?

  • Do any particular thoughts come to mind when testing?

  • What are your biggest concerns about testing?

As the student’s feelings and fears become clearer, you can offer more targeted and practical support, and you can discuss strategies and resources to help address these issues and succeed in learning, both online and in the classroom.

3. Provide opportunities to demonstrate competency

It can be challenging for those who experience testing anxiety to feel they are seen and heard, so it’s crucial to give them an opportunity to prove their competency. This could mean providing them with additional testing time or a relaxed testing environment. You could also offer constructive feedback on their testing performance and encouragement to keep trying.

Additionally, you can provide extra testing resources such as practice tests or test-taking strategies. This way, students can achieve tangible results and understand success is possible with the right support.

4. Reframe their perspective

To help students maintain a better perspective on testing, explain that testing is only one part of the learning journey. Remind them to take a step back and focus on the bigger picture. The testing process has many moving parts, and it’s essential to help students see that testing is not the only way to measure their intelligence or abilities.

Depending on their age, encourage them to explore other opportunities such as:

  • Extracurricular activities

  • Mentorship programs

  • Internships

These experiences can give students a wider perspective on how intelligence and competency are assessed as well as provide them with alternative paths to success. Likewise, a broader perspective can help build self-confidence and resilience, which can, in turn, help reduce testing anxiety.

5. Help manage underlying stress

Test anxiety is often caused or exacerbated by preexisting anxiety. Approximately 31.9% of adolescents reported having an active form of the condition, with 8.3% experiencing extreme levels that meet the DSM-IV criteria for impairment. Therefore, helping students address and manage underlying stress in both the short and long term can be helpful.

Not every condition is the same, but some ideas for helping students manage their stress include:

  • Creating a welcoming classroom environment by encouraging open communication and support.

  • Teaching relaxation techniques, such as mindfulness, deep breathing, or visualization to help manage anxiety.

  • Encouraging students to take regular breaks throughout the testing process.

By doing this, you can help students feel more secure in their testing environment and better manage their testing anxiety overall.

6. Share effective test-taking strategies

Test-taking strategies are specific tools, techniques, and approaches that can be used to maximize performance, reduce stress, and improve confidence. Examples of effective test-taking strategies include:

  • Planning ahead: Students must learn how to allocate time, understand the test format, and preview testing material to anticipate which questions may be asked.

  • Reading directions: It’s important to carefully read instructions to ensure comprehension before beginning any testing activity.

  • Staying focused: Remaining organized and on task during testing can help a student avoid wasting time or needing to double-check answers.

  • Eliminating distractions: Staying focused by turning off electronics, putting away testing materials, and blocking out other test-takers can help students do their best work while managing their time efficiently.

7. Emphasize positive thinking

One of the best ways to help students manage testing anxiety is by encouraging positive thinking. Positive thinking can be a powerful tool for believing in one’s ability to succeed and perform well on testing days. Positive thinking can also help reduce stress levels, preventing testing anxiety from spiraling out of control.

Positive thinking takes practice, and building healthy habits can create a framework to achieve that. Help your students develop concrete examples of positive self-talk they can use on testing days, such as, “I am capable and confident,” or, “I can do this!” Have students write these affirmations and commit them to memory.

Other ways to encourage positive thinking include:

  • Rewarding positive testing behavior.

  • Taking moments of silence to relax and refocus.

  • Reinforcing testing successes instead of failures.

8. Encourage them to get enough sleep

Getting a good night’s sleep before a testing day is one of the best ways to reduce stress and maximize performance. Sleep helps restore energy levels, dispel mental fog and improve memory.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that children ages 6 to 12 get 9 to 12 hours of sleep every 24 hours and youths ages 13 to 18 get 8 to 10 hours.

Here are some ways to optimize sleep before testing:

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every night.

  • Avoid bright screens (TV, computer, phone) for at least one hour before bed.

  • Avoid caffeine or other stimulants late in the day.

  • Listen to calming music or read something relaxing before turning out the lights.

  • Practice mindful breathing or visualization techniques to feel more relaxed.