Test Anxiety Part 2: The Prescription
In the last blog, I wrote about the different ways in which test anxiety can manifest itself in a student's performance, so now it's time to answer the question: what, as a success coach, can I do about it? How can I most effectively coach my students around this type of psychological boulder in the road? While there is no magic bullet, there are ways to help students overcome test anxiety.
MAKE FRIENDS WITH YOUR ENEMY
The biggest thing I tell students about nerves/anxiety/stress when it comes to taking exams is that you're just not going to get rid of it. Not gonna happen. The only proven way to stop being nervous about something nerve-wracking is to do it hundreds, perhaps thousands of times until it is no longer nerve-wracking. But you're not going to be able to take that economics final hundreds of times, so just get over it! But while you may not be able to completely shut out the voice in your head that looks at the first question on an important exam and immediately screams, "All systems down! Abort mission! We're all gonna die!" - you can learn to prevent that voice from doing you harm. The voice of the second-guesser, always telling you that maybe you don't know what you think you know, cannot be drowned out, for then it will only try harder to shout above the din. But it can be listened to and thoughtfully ignored. You can make friends with your enemy. With some of my students, I have practiced role playing conversations out-loud with these formerly silent voices. Together, we talk about how you can acknowledge the voice telling you to flee the scene or give up or make a careless error, all while understanding that that voice is full of crazy, bad advice you should not heed. Once students realize that these thoughts can be simultaneously A) completely normal and B) completely wrong, it makes them easier to handle in the moment.
PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS
It's a psychological phenomenon we've all experienced: when you believe you are winning, you are more likely to win. When you believe you are defeated, you are more likely to clench defeat from the jaws of victory. Likewise, students' feelings of defeat or demoralization on a certain part of an exam can lead them to perform poorly even where they should excel. Therefore, I tell my students to complete exams according to their strengths. Most of the time, there's no requirement that you answer every question of an exam in order. So if you are more confident writing essays than answering multiple choice questions, do all of the essays first or vice versa if the reverse is true. On a larger scale, this can even mean encouraging my students to let their course schedule play to their strengths. If a student is particularly anxious about test-taking, we look together at their prerequisites and course requirements to see if there isn't a way to avoid taking courses wherein his or her entire grade is based on two tests. Of course, it's always better to overcome your fears than to simply avoid what frightens you, but managing my fear of reptiles doesn't mean I've got to throw myself into a snake pit.
I love puzzles. Crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles- you name it. Through the years, I've learned that there are times when you're just gonna be stuck. You've looked at every piece left and none of them fit! So often what I need in this scenario is to hit pause. When I come back and look at the puzzle with fresh eyes, I'll make a breakthrough I never could have made if I'd just kept staring. It can be the same with exams. Sometimes students are afraid to take a moment to reset out of fear of losing time, even though that's exactly what might help them the most.
"YOU CAN DO ANYTHING FOR 20 SECONDS"
….is something a fitness instructor once said to me in the middle of a particularly grueling workout, and I've taken it to heart. It's also something I remind my students who tend to want to give up when the going gets rough. For these students, the most effective tactic is often the polar opposite of "hit pause," for they are the ones who already have one foot out the door. It's a mantra that can help whether the grueling task in question is scheduled to last 20 seconds or 20 minutes. The most important thing is that the student knows that, at some point, this too shall pass, but if they maximize their time and just focus for a little bit longer- they, too will pass…the class.
Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007. The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.