For many students, the biggest challenge when taking a test isn’t the actual content, but a lack of confidence due to test-taking anxiety. These students often don’t know where to begin when facing this obstacle, but the key to overcoming test anxiety is deceptively simple: rather than approach anxiety as an abstract idea, treat it as a concrete one.
Students can work on overcoming test anxiety in the same way they work on improving their math or reading skills. It’s not enough to tell students, “Stop thinking negative thoughts.” We have to help them practice the positive thoughts that lead to success. We do this in a variety of ways, from teaching them to free-write their worries to something we call the “mean tutor” strategy.
In order to implement this strategy, we begin by talking to students about the “cognitive triangle.” This is the idea that our feelings are affected by thoughts, which in turn affect our behaviors. We then generate a list of negative thoughts that get in the way while the student is taking a test, such as these:
Once we have a list of mental messages that pop up while the student is trying to concentrate on a test, we generate a list of replacement messages:
This is just the beginning. To help a student to internalize these positive messages, we kick into mean tutor mode!
The student is assigned a set of practice problems. While they’re working, the tutor chooses some of those negative thoughts from the first list and says them out loud. The student then replies with their new positive statements. The two of them continue this dialogue until the student has finished the set of practice problems. Don’t worry – though we call this the mean tutor strategy, the tutor isn’t really being mean! They’re simply reciting the student’s thoughts aloud, giving them the opportunity to counter each negative statement with a new positive statement.
To actually practice overcoming anxiety (rather than just talking about it) the way they would practice any other skill puts the student back in control. It may feel awkard or silly at first, but students quickly realize what a difference this strategy makes!