Discussing Anxiety

Hey there! I know a lot of your students are worried about the upcoming tests. I think about this a lot – and would love your thoughts and suggestions on minimizing anxiety in your students and classroom! Here are my thoughts after literally hundreds of conversations on the topic:

Some notes on testing anxiety:

  • Read this post with students on the two factors I see contribute the most to anxiety: lack of preparation and/or performance anxiety.
  • Avoid weaponizing the test or knowledge. Comments like, “The test is trying to trick you” isn’t helping anyone. Instead: tell students that they should show you what they know and do their best on the ones they don’t, but if they don’t know something, it’s a good guide for us as educators to know how to best help them.
  • Discuss what “do your best” means to students. Don’t just display a poster telling them to do their best without clearly identifying what that expectation means to them. That just creates more stress – most students try their hardest until “trying” fails them. “Trying my best” won’t help me with skills I just don’t know – don’t reduce students to that mindset. “Did you try your best?” often just shifts the blame to the student for skill gaps – which might be true in some instances, but isn’t helpful. Instead: ask them what made them struggle and demotivate them, then put in plans to fix those issues.
  • Strategize with students. I frequently hear teachers complain that their students aren’t “bought in” to the assessments – and it actually makes a lot of sense why the students wouldn’t be if we aren’t involving them. How could we involve students more in their own assessment of their knowledge? Can we use assessments as learning tools as well? What does a student want to know about themselves? It’s not the SAT – it’s the assessments, formative (formal and informal) that we give all year that we don’t include them on that creates that tension. Ask: “After the test, what do you want to be able to say you tried/ worked on to be successful?” Have them write it out before the test, then reflect on it afterwards. 
  • I’ll just put this out there – if our assessments all year reward getting 90% right, then how will a student feel when they sit down to a test that is designed for the 50th percentile to get 50%? The answer is that they start to feel inadequate – and that’s putting it mildly. How can you address this in other things you grade and/ or value? If we don’t openly show that we value that struggle in class, students won’t know it.
  • Help students with an exit plan – on every assessment (test or homework or otherwise) I’d include one to two stretch question they are asked NOT to solve. Instead, notice 3 things about that problem. Ideally it’d be a problem/ skill from your next unit. Value noticing in your work – and value their observations and ideas for next steps. It’s not just about a right answer. So on their exit plan – if a student gets to a question they don’t know, they could notice three things about the question (basic notes are fine too!) – if they still don’t know what to do, then move on. Could you value that on assessments in class as well?
  • I can’t recommend this article highly enough: Developing Assessment Capable Learners. (Hint: It’s not about being good at tests…)

An exercise

I did this at OCHS recently, and it helped students generate ideas about anxiety and how to deal with it. Ask the room to recall a time they felt pressure to do well and experienced anxiety about it. I had them write about the experience for about a minute, and purposefully recall their physical and mental state. (Shaky hands, forgetting what you know, saying silly things, etc…).

As a  table, they discussed the symptoms and triggers of performance-related anxiety.

Now write down advice you would give yourself. Share with a friend and try to get a lot of ideas. How would you now approach the situation? What advice would you give? 

We posed this question to some students at Olde Columbine High School a few weeks ago, and I have the answers in my office still. I will be honest: I have a total favorite, but I heard SO many great tips on dealing with stress and anxiety. We then created “Next Steps” – Facing this situation (the SAT, etc), what are some steps you can take to reduce anxiety? We then shared those as well. It was really powerful to own the feelings and show them how we can address it and not just be victims of stress. 

Here are some of their notes and advice: 

How would you do this? Have you done something like this? How was it similar, different?

I would love a conversation about this and am open to suggestions and ideas.