Strategies to Reduce Testing Stress

Try these research-based ideas in the classroom to help your pupils succeed on high-stakes tests.

By Eliana Osborn

'Stress' written in the sand

You’ve spent the year doing your very best to make your classroom a positive learning environment. Now comes testing season. How can you make sure your pupils shine their brightest and are able to exhibit all they have learned? Researchers have looked into different ways to alleviate anxiety and increase focus so that nothing gets in the way of success. Read on for their ideas to see which ones you might be able to integrate into this difficult time of year.

Write Your Worries

Sian Beilock, at the University of Chicago, has found that writing before a test can help students do better. Just ten minutes spent writing about feelings and worries was enough to improve scores from a B- to a B+. The idea is that acknowledging the negative thoughts and getting them out onto paper can allow one to clear his mind enough to do what he has prepared for.  Only the abstract is available for free. For other discussion of the study and the author’s other work, click here.

Introduce a pre-testing tradition. Explain to the class that you are all going to spend a few minutes getting the worries onto paper and out of their heads. Be dramatic about cleaning house, emptying the bad so that only the smart parts remain. Consider crumpling up and throwing away the papers after writing to further symbolize that you are getting rid of the negatives.

Move with Yoga

Yoga has long been used to help adults distance themselves from the stresses of daily life. Without having to get into complicated positions, simple yoga stretching can be useful in the classroom. Doctors from the Sleep Disorders Research Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that the biggest benefits of yoga for secondary pupils were in terms of fatigue and inertia — big issues during long, quiet test days. 

Websites can explain different yoga poses, but the easiest way to get yourself familiar with some basics is to watch a video or go to a class in person. Even if yoga isn’t your thing, the opening and closing stretches of a routine are simple and effective.  Try a few things out on your own to make sure you are comfortable. Just five minutes of stretching, breathing, and centering can awaken students' muscles and brains to get the juices flowing.

Practice Makes Perfect

Beilock has also studied how to use pressure to your advantage. She found that practicing under stressful conditions made people better able to handle a real-life situation. In other research, she discovered that talking through what needs to be done in a stressful situation helps to activate the parts of the brain that focus on content rather than focusing on the tension. 

Do a high-stakes, pencils-down, practice run at testing. Recreate actual test conditions as best you can, covering posters, not allowing bathroom breaks, and giving the instructions. Learners will react because it is uncomfortable. After the practice run, have a class discussion about how kids felt, and let them suggest ideas for reducing their tension during the actual test.  This will help your learners make a memory of this real-life practice run. When the test date arrives, they can take some time to think back to the prior experience. Have kids walk through it in their mind’s eye. Visualizing how the testing was before, and how they can handle it better this time will help eliminate some of the stress.

More Resources:

Testing Tips Presentation

View these PowerPoint slides as a class as a springboard to review how to succeed at high-stakes testing.  A variety of tips covering all aspects of preparing for the test day.

Yoga In and Out of the Classroom

Stretching, breathing, reaching.  Ways to incorporate mindfulness in every aspect of your life.

Creating a Positive School Environment

Classrooms are an incubator for everything kids think about.  Be proactive in conquering anxieties and problems with these ideas to make every day run more smoothly.