The Most Powerful Way To Help Kids With Testing Anxiety

Adam was a mess.  If you saw him, you would have thought that he was attending the funeral of someone very pivotal in his life.  On the brink of tears, unable to breathe, he sat along a set of blue lockers simply clutching his knees to his chest.

The death of a family member?  No, the APUSH Advanced Placement exam.

Adam had an anxiety attack while taking the assessment.

It has become common for students to panic during high stakes testing situations.  Elementary students will simply cry and look confused.  Older students will seize and stare blankly at the page.  Recently however, we've seen more students that have full-blown panic attacks and physical reactions to tests (vomiting etc.).

I feel bad for them, we all do.

For students who experience severe levels of anxiety like Adam, there is little we can do.  For students with lower and more manageable levels of testing anxiety, we can employ a simple trick before and during the assessment to help them.

This article is about how testing anxiety decreases performance on assessments and one powerful trick teachers can do to alleviate that stress.

We have two types of memory, long term and working.  Long term memory is stored experience.  

Working memory is what you're using on a daily basis to solve all of the small problems the environment throws your way.  Working memory is a space where your brain attends to stimuli while combing it with ideas stored in long term memory to try to make sense of what's happening.  

The capacity of working memory is limited.  The maximum number of working memory components is seven.  Higher capacities are linked to higher general intelligence.  More working memory makes you better at life (in the sense that you are more able to make decisions and deal with the the "day-to-day" of living more efficiently).

Understanding that working memory is a finite space, we begin to comprehend the effect of anxiety on test takers.  

For a student without anxiety, they work through an assessment and add things to their working memory where they solve the problem.  For example, they read the question: identify four characteristics for extrusive igneous rocks and using one complete sentence describe how they differ from intrusive igneous rocks.

Their working memory may look like this:
-the definition of intrusive igneous rocks
-concept of vesicular texture
-difference between magma and lava
-relationship between cooling rate and rock crystal size

Everything in their working memory deals with the problem on hand.

However, a student with testing anxiety perseverates on their performance.  Their working memory will look something like this:
- the definition of intrusive igneous rocks
- I hope I get this question correct!
-concept of vesicular texture
-Oh my god I may not get this question right!
-difference between magma and lava
-I can't do this!  I'm definitely not going to pass!

The student with anxiety fills their working memory with thoughts about their performance which occupies the finite valuable space they have to address the problem.

The reason they can't solve the problem is because they lack the working memory capacity to do so, which results in either an incorrect answer or no answer.  This in turn supports their anxious doubts and strengthens the anxiety.  It begins a downward spiral.

Students with testing anxiety are afraid to make a mistake, to be wrong.

Educators know that making mistakes and errors are powerful learning tools and integral steps in the learning process.

Students do not.

We can use this fact to calm them down and alleviate some of their perseverance.

Students need to not only hear, but understand that making errors is part of the process of learning.  They are expected to make mistakes, to be incorrect, and to get wrong answers.

They need to be frequently told that it is ok to make errors.

Why will this work?

If a student understands that part of the learning process is making errors and they are expected to occasionally be wrong, they won't worry about it.

If they don't worry about it, their brain won't attend to it and they won't find those negative thoughts sucking up valuable space in their working memory.

With out anxious thoughts occupying valuable working memory real estate, they'll have more room to attend to and solve the problems at hand.

With more working memory, they'll have more cognitive room to answer the assessment questions correctly.  They make less errors which creates an upward spiral of self supporting feelings and a "can do" attitude.

To summarize.  Anxious students occupy valuable space in working memory with their thoughts on how well they are doing.  By telling a student that errors are expected, they hopefully stop worrying about making mistakes.  This leads to more space in working memory dedicated to attending to the assessment problem which will in turn lead to fewer errors.

Its a small step with strong implications.  

Thanks for reading.

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